‘Not a vassal’: What to make of Macron’s recent outspoken wariness of US

Posted on : 2023-05-22 17:14 KST Modified on : 2023-05-23 08:38 KST
Recent remarks by France’s president have ruffled feathers in Europe and elsewhere
President Xi Jinping of China speaks with President Emmanuel Macron of France as they walk through the Pine Garden in Guangzhou, in Guangdong Province, during the latter’s visit to China on April 7. (EPA/Xinhua/Yonhap)
President Xi Jinping of China speaks with President Emmanuel Macron of France as they walk through the Pine Garden in Guangzhou, in Guangdong Province, during the latter’s visit to China on April 7. (EPA/Xinhua/Yonhap)

One person in particular has been showing up a lot in headlines out of Europe these days: President Emmanuel Macron of France.

It’s not just because of the pension reform plan he pushed through, which has all of France rattled. He’s been drawing attention with the bombshell remarks he has been making while tensions rise around the world over the war in Ukraine and the US-China rivalry.

Macron became a particular focus of discussion upon his return from a visit to China in early April, where he met with President Xi Jinping. It was his first visit to China in three-and-a-half years since October 2019, and he was accompanied by a very large delegation of over 50 economic officials.

Eighteen major and minor agreements were reached between French and Chinese companies, along with pledges for cooperation in various areas. This included the French aircraft manufacturer Airbus setting up a second production line in Tianjin and China agreeing to purchase no fewer than 160 Airbus aircraft.

Macron’s warm welcome in China — which included a stop in Guangzhou after his visit to Beijing — came shortly after European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s remarks on March 30 about how it was “neither viable nor in Europe\'s interest to decouple from China” and how European needed to “focus on de-risk, not decouple” instead.

Macron’s China visit was a news story in itself, but what really set tongues wagging around Europe were his remarks afterward. He commented that the Taiwan issue, which the US regards as a life-of-death interest in the Indo-Pacific region, had “nothing to do with us,” while emphasizing the concept of “strategic autonomy” and the message that “being an ally does not mean being a vassal.”

His words drew a torrent of criticism from the West, including the US and European countries. The response was that he was making light of the potential for China to unify with Taiwan by force, that he was causing rifts in the Atlantic alliance between the US and EU, and that he was trying to break the trans-Atlantic connection and increase France’s influence.

The Chinese government was about the only party to welcome the remarks, which it said it “respected” and “supported.” What sort of determination was behind Macron’s behavior?

Strategic distance with US, a lesson from the Trump era

The “strategic autonomy” concept that he has been emphasizing was first suggested by the EU. It first appeared in an EU Common Security and Defense Policy document from 2013, which stated that Europe could boost its “strategic autonomy” and “its ability to act with partners” by establishing “a more integrated, sustainable, innovative and competitive European Defence Technological and Industrial Base.”

In a May 12 interview with the Hankyoreh, Grzegorz Stec, an expert on China-EU relations and researcher with the Germany-based Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS), said Macron’s remarks were political statements aimed at stirring the debate on “strategic autonomy” in Europe. In other words, they were meant to allude to discontent over the rising tensions in the Taiwan Strait as US figures engage in close contact with leaders in Taiwan and US-China relations continue to deteriorate. 

Stec also said Macron’s strategic autonomy concept gets at the heart of a key discussion that has been taking place all over Europe: the question of how the EU can establish itself on the geopolitical stage in terms of its ability to act and its economic competitiveness.

Stec explained that the experience of interacting with a US led by Donald Trump made many in Europe realize that the EU needs to prepare for the possibility that its relations with its strongest and most reliable ally may face unexpected disruptions. 

The idea is that the approach would not necessarily mean restricting alliances with the US, and that the EU can establish its own capabilities within that framework. In this sense, the strategic autonomy concept in Europe is more than a mere question of defining the relationship vis-a-vis the US.

Kim Jung, a professor of political science at the University of North Korean Studies, said Macron “appears to be partnering with China in an instrumental sense to establish autonomy in Europe.” In this context, Kim noted how France possesses “greater military autonomy than other countries as the EU’s only permanent member of the UN Security Council.”

Macron’s strong statement toward the US — stressing that the EU is not Washington’s “vassal” — is being interpreted as reflecting the lessons learned from former US President Donald Trump.

Stec explained that after the experience of a US led by Trump, Europe appeared to have come to the realization that it needed to think about whether the US was its strongest and most reliable ally. During his presidency, Trump pushed an “America first,” protectionist approach, while threatening European allies with the abolition of Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) treaty, which concerns collective defense.

Trump is also a very likely candidate in the next US presidential election. This means Europe will have to prepare for the eventuality of a sudden “change of heart” from Washington.

Other analysts are advising Europe to take responsibility for its own security as the US confronts the priority task of dealing with the challenge posed by China.

Philippe Le Corre, a senior fellow at the Asia Society Policy Institute’s Center for China Analysis, told the Hankyoreh that under US leadership, NATO’s “useful role” was “mainly for transatlantic alliance” and “has nothing to do with the rest of the world,” except in the event of a NATO country being attacked.

“But at the same time, for the future, it\'s not a good idea for Europe to rely on NATO,” he stressed.

In a recently published paper, the Brussels-based think tank GEG (Groupe d’études géopolitiques, or “geopolitical studies group”) advised that “Europeans should invest in their strategic autonomy to ensure that when China is able to invade Taiwan the potential redistribution of US efforts among theaters does not leave Europe in a vulnerable position.”

“Substantial investments should be made at the European level to support the joint procurement of the same military equipment by several [EU] member states and the rapid adaptation of the European defense industry’s capacities,” it urged.

Shortly after taking office as French president in 2017, Macron emphasized the need for “a joint intervention force, a joint defense budget, and a joint doctrine for action” at the EU level.

Amid the immediate crisis presented by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Europe is urgently in need of US intervention. This may explain why Macron’s recent statements and actions have drawn more attention and criticism.

But a responsible political leader needs the perceptiveness to anticipate several moves ahead. Europe may be able to achieve a more “capable” alliance by keeping the US as an ally while also acquiring its own strategic autonomy.

In international politics, there is no such thing as an eternal enemy or an eternal friend.

By Noh Ji-won, Berlin correspondent

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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