President Emmanuel Macron of France arrives in Beijing on Wednesday determined to carve out a distinct role for Europe that avoids America’s confrontation with an assertive China, and convinced that there is a place for China in ending the war in Ukraine.
Battered at home by protests over his decision to raise the French retirement age, rebuffed in his repeated attempts to sway President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia from pursuing a long war, Mr. Macron has turned to China as “the sole country in the world capable of changing Moscow’s calculus” on Ukraine, in the words of one diplomatic official.
“Only China can have a game-changer effect,” the official, who requested anonymity in line with French diplomatic practice, said. “We know there will be no Chinese condemnation of Russia, but the president has worked enormously to see how, with China, we can be useful to the benefit of Ukrainians.”
What exactly Mr. Macron has in mind is not clear. China has never condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It has avoided use of the word “war” to describe the Russian assault. It has embraced a “no-limits,” anti-Western partnership with Moscow, cemented last month by President Xi Jinping’s visit to Russia and the joint declaration of a “new era” freed of what the two countries see as American dominance.
But the French leader likes to thread needles invisible to others. He appears to detect enough Chinese disquiet over Mr. Putin’s war for diplomatic ingenuity.
China, as Mr. Putin acknowledged in September, has expressed “questions and concerns” about the war. Unlike Mr. Putin, it is not interested in nuclear saber-rattling; and it has not closed the door on the suggestion last month from Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian president, that China could “become a partner” in the quest for a settlement.
The United States has been dismissive of any Chinese role in Ukrainian peacemaking. It waved away a vague 12-point Chinese plan put forward in February. But Mr. Macron spoke to President Biden on the eve of his departure to Beijing and the two leaders evoked “their shared wish to involve China in accelerating an end to the war in Ukraine,” a French presidential statement said.
Still, clear differences remain on approaches to China. Taking his own independent position holds a strong political appeal to Mr. Macron, for whom the development of Europe as a global power is a recurrent theme.
He has been critical of the Biden administration’s tough line on China and believes any decoupling, or “de-linking,” is not good for Europe, given the vast economic interests at stake. The German auto industry depends overwhelmingly on the Chinese market; a possible deal with China for the sales of dozens of Europe’s Airbus aircraft is under discussion.
For China, too, at a time when relations with the United States are at their lowest point in decades, cultivating partners in Europe, especially France and Germany, holds considerable economic and strategic interest as it pursues its post-Covid reopening.
In an interview with The New York Times ahead of Mr. Macron’s visit, China’s ambassador to the European Union, Fu Cong, urged Europe to be more independent of the United States, and suggested Chinese closeness to Russia had been overplayed. Of the “no-limits” friendship between the two countries, he said: “‘No limit’ is nothing but rhetoric.”
Mr. Xi will hold more than six hours of meetings with Mr. Macron during his three-day visit — exceptional treatment that amounts to a statement of serious diplomatic intent — including a joint visit to the southern city of Guangzhou, where the Chinese leader has strong family connections.
Last month Mr. Xi accused the United States of leading Western countries in a campaign of “all-out containment, encirclement and suppression” against China. Clearly, he sees France as an important interlocutor as the Biden administration imposes strict export controls aimed at cutting off Chinese access to critical technologies.
Through European economic outreach of a kind the United States is not prepared to offer, Mr. Macron may have some leverage in persuading China to take a more constructive diplomatic role in Ukraine. The recent Chinese achievement in brokering an unlikely deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran to restore diplomatic relations was a clear indication of the country’s new reach and ambition.
“Our objective is not to break ties with China,” the French official said. “On the contrary, our objective is to reinforce those ties on better foundations.”
For the Chinese Community Party, strong growth is the indispensable guarantor of its authority. But growth fell to 3 percent last year, the lowest rate in many years. Europe can contribute more to an economic rebound than Russia, for all the talk of “no limits.”
Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission president, who is accompanying Mr. Macron in a display of European heft, said in a speech last week that “it is neither viable — nor in Europe’s interest — to decouple from China. Our relations are not black or white — and our response cannot be either. This is why we need to focus on de-risk — not decouple.”
Still, framing China’s rise in more direct and ominous terms than Mr. Macron, she said that “China has now turned the page on the era of ‘reform and opening’ and is moving into a new era of security and control.”
Given that China “wants to become the world’s most powerful nation” by midcentury, and is intent on “systemic change of the international order with China at its center,” Europe must diversify away from its dependence on China for strategic materials, Ms. von der Leyen, who represents the 27-member European Union, said.
“We rely on one single supplier — China — for 98 percent of our rare earth supply, 93 percent of our magnesium and 97 percent of our lithium,” she said, adding: “Batteries that are powering our electric vehicles are forecast to drive up demand for lithium by 17 times by 2050.”
The French official said Ms. von der Leyen’s tougher public views on China’s hardening under Mr. Xi did not reflect a difference of appreciation, but rather Mr. Macron’s determination to look forward, in order to “find ways to build, once we know that.”
With both Mr. Putin and Mr. Xi, the tendency of the French leader has been to acknowledge on the one hand the threat they pose to Western values and democracy, and on the other to insist that only dialogue can bring favorable change.
That dialogue with Mr. Putin, intense in the early months of the war, has broken down in recent months. It bore no apparent fruit.
“We are an ally of the Americans. We are not equidistant between China and the United States,” the French official said. “But we don’t have the same positions on China, because we don’t have the same interests.”
The potential for China to do great harm — whether by arming Russia or invading Taiwan — is too real, in the French view, for any other approach than “re-engagement on the basis of frank dialogue.”
This is not the language on China of the Biden administration. But if Mr. Macron, and Europe in general, welcome all the critical American support for the war in Ukraine, they do not want the price of revived trans-Atlanticism to be the European loss of China.