Macron and Xi Discuss Ukraine, Economic Ties in High-Stakes Paris Talks

Otis De Marie
Chinese President Xi Jinping met with French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris and called for continued cooperation between Beijing and EU member states Image: Gonzalo Fuentes/REUTERS

Belgium (Brussels Morning Newspaper), Xi Jinping’s recent visit to Paris, his first since 2019, was marked by high expectations and complex diplomatic undercurrents. As the Chinese head of state met with French President Emmanuel Macron and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, the stage was set for discussions on a gamut of pressing issues, from trade disputes to the ongoing war in Ukraine. The outcomes of these meetings, however, have left many questioning the depth of China’s commitment to resolving these conflicts.

At the forefront of the agenda was the issue of the Ukraine war. Macron relayed assurances from Xi that China would abstain from supplying weapons to Russia. Further, Beijing had committed to stringent controls over civilian goods that might be repurposed for military use, known as dual-use goods. “We welcome this,” Macron expressed in a briefing on Monday evening following the tripartite talks. The discussions later narrowed down to bilateral dialogues between Macron and Xi, focusing on nuanced details of their shared and divergent interests.

Despite the reassurances, Xi’s public silence during the joint statement with Macron raised eyebrows. Nonetheless, he later articulated a desire for collaboration towards an “Olympic truce” during the upcoming Paris Olympic Games, a cessation of global hostilities, including the strife in the Gaza Strip. This proposition, while noble in its intent, subtly underscored the broader complexities of international peace efforts.

The American perspective adds a layer of intrigue to these diplomatic exchanges. The U.S. had briefed its European allies about China’s covert support to Russia via war-relevant supplies, contradicting Beijing’s public stance. This revelation casts a shadow on Xi’s promises and complicates the EU’s position, which had already sanctioned several Chinese companies earlier in the year for similar transgressions.

Amid these geopolitical tensions, Xi took to the French media, penning a guest article in Le Figaro, where he expressed an understanding of the turmoil the Ukrainian crisis has stirred within Europe. He positioned China as a collaborator in the search for peaceful resolutions, aligning with his public persona of a global peacemaker.

Another contentious topic during Xi’s visit was the economic relationship between Europe and China. Macron’s call for fair trade conditions highlighted the growing frustrations with China’s heavily subsidized exports, including e-cars and steel, which are seen as flooding the European market. Von der Leyen echoed this sentiment post-discussions, stating firmly, “We will defend our economies.” The European Commission is anticipated to respond with tariffs aimed at Chinese e-car manufacturers benefiting from state subsidies.

This economic discourse is not isolated from the broader narrative of global trade and market influence. Western countries have long criticized China’s economic policies, particularly its strategy of boosting exports to counterbalance domestic market weaknesses. Such practices are believed to distort international markets and have prompted a reevaluation of trade policies within European corridors.

Ursula von der Leyen emphasized the need for equitable market access, hinting at a tougher stance on practices that could potentially destabilize European industries. During her discourse, she underscored the determination to leverage all available protective measures to shield Europe from adverse economic impacts. “Europe cannot accept market-distorting practices that could lead to deindustrialization here at home,” von der Leyen warned, signifying a preparedness to combat any threats to the economic sovereignty of the region.

Supporting this defensive posture, prominent economists echoed the sentiment of urgency in a report issued by the Centre for Economic Policy Research (CEPR) and Brussels-based think tank Bruegel. The research, co-authored by influential figures like Beatrice Weder di Mauro and Moritz Schularick, called for a strategic reduction in Europe’s dependency on Chinese supplies. The focus was on critical dependencies known to jeopardize Europe’s economic health, such as semiconductors and essential pharmaceuticals, though they noted that not all products, like solar modules, fall into this critical category.

The frictions over economic interdependencies were already palpable during German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s visit to China in April, where similar grievances were aired but met with resistance. In contrast to European concerns about overcapacity, Xi insisted, as reported by the Chinese state news agency, that there was no issue with Chinese overcapacity, reflecting a stark disconnect between European anxieties and Chinese economic policies.

This economic tug-of-war extends into the cultural and symbolic realms, exemplified by Beijing’s targeted countermeasures against European goods such as brandy, predominantly cognac. In a not-so-subtle nod to these tensions, the gifts listed by the Élysée for Xi included a bottle of “Louis XIII” cognac from Rémy Martin—a choice that was certainly laden with diplomatic nuance. During his talks on Monday evening, Xi expressed his hopes that provisional measures against French cognac would not need to be enforced, though he stopped short of providing any reassurance against such actions.

The narrative of harmony portrayed by Chinese state media starkly contrasted the undercurrents of these discussions. The People’s Daily, a mouthpiece of the Communist Party, quoted Xi expressing a desire to fortify the traditional friendship between China and France, emphasizing the potential for deepened cooperation. This portrayal aimed to cast the visit in a light of continuity and mutual respect despite the palpable strains evident in the economic dialogues.

Xi’s state visit continued with symbolic gestures of diplomacy as he and Macron proceeded to the Pyrenees on Tuesday. This leg of the journey held personal significance for Macron, who spent time there with his grandmother during his childhood. The itinerary itself was telling, with the Chinese president scheduled to conclude his European tour in Serbia and Hungary, two nations known for their friendly ties with the Kremlin amidst the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. This choice of destinations subtly underscored China’s strategic positioning within the complex web of international relations, navigating between traditional alliances and contemporary global challenges.

The layers of Xi’s visit, woven through diplomatic exchanges, economic discussions, and cultural engagements, reveal the multifaceted approach required in international politics today. While official dialogues hint at a veneer of mutual understanding and cooperation, the realities beneath speak to ongoing challenges, strategic divergences, and the continuous effort to balance national interests with global responsibilities. As Europe and China chart their courses in this turbulent era, the echoes of their discussions in Paris will undoubtedly influence the broader dynamics of international relations, shaping future interactions in an intricately connected world.

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Otis De Marie is a journalist specializing in the intersection of politics and economics and has an in-depth understanding of geopolitics and foreign affairs.