The struggle between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party is the keystone geopolitical issue of our time. Whether the U.S. is able to preserve the post-1945 democratic international order, or whether China replaces said order with a Beijing-led mercantilist rule, will heavily determine global freedom and prosperity in the 21st century. Americans may soon fight and die over this contest. The support of U.S. allies in constraining China’s imperial excesses is thus absolutely critical.
Unfortunately, America’s oldest ally appears to have chosen Beijing over Washington. In one week, President Emmanuel Macron of France will travel to Washington to attend a state visit at President Joe Biden’s invitation. The president of the Fifth Republic doesn’t appear keen to please his host.
Speaking at the APEC forum last week, Macron offered a dramatic repudiation of U.S. policy on China. As is his form, Macron shielded the true import of his words with an eloquent veil. But his underlying intent was clear. And it is not in America’s favor. Macron observed that “a lot of people would like to see that there are two orders in this world. This is a huge mistake. Even for both the U.S. and China. We need a single global order.” He continued, “We are in the jungle and we have two big elephants, trying to become more and more nervous. If they become very nervous and start [a] war it will be a big problem for the rest of the jungle. You need cooperation and a lot of other animals: tigers, monkeys, and so on… We don’t believe in hegemony, we don’t believe in confrontation, we believe in stability.”
This might seem like a nuanced defense of the existing democratic international order. In fact, it’s the very opposite. Macron’s is a deliberate play for Beijing’s favor. Don’t take my word for it, take Xi Jinping’s.
One need only compare Macron’s speech with the all-powerful Chinese Communist Party leader’s own APEC address. Xi observed that the world should “jointly reject the Cold War mentality and bloc confrontation and build an Asia-Pacific security architecture.” Separately engaging business leaders, Xi mentioned the word “cooperation” thirteen times. Perhaps the two leaders coordinated their speeches?
Macron’s notion that “a lot of people would like to see that there are two orders in this world” is a clear rejection of U.S. foreign policy toward China. Macron and his embassy in Washington are fully aware, after all, that Washington’s underlying message to its allies is clear: “China is attempting to displace the U.S.-led democratic order with one of its own. We need your support in resisting the harder edges of China’s effort.”
Both the Trump and Biden administration have pushed allies toward clearer repudiations of China’s conduct in terms of its threats to Taiwan, intellectual property theft, and human rights abuses. Each of these various concerns is linked inexorably to China’s effort to rewrite the international rules of the road.
Macron knows this, which is why his speech must be considered in the context of its underlying intent: cultivating Chinese favor, likely toward expanding the $20 billion in annual French exports to China. Macron witnessed German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s recent trade jaunt to Beijing and now wants his piece of the pie. Macron’s display of anguished earnestness in pursuit of Indo-Pacific stability is shallow. As with his broader “strategic autonomy” agenda for Europe, Macron’s words hide a blatant truth. Namely, that France acts in the narrow pursuit of its own interests. The French president has seen his Chinese counterpart’s interest in rebutting U.S. efforts to draw attention to his imperial agenda. Macron has seen how Xi pretends that the U.S. is the one responsible for undermining international cooperation. Macron has recognized that the way to Xi’s heart is to echo his narrative, albeit in more veiled terms.
True, France suffered understandable anger over its loss of a major submarine export deal to Australia and the ensuing AUKUS agreement that will see the U.S. and Britain develop an Australian nuclear submarine force. The U.S. should have given Macron advanced notice on that agreement while also doing more to ameliorate his associated economic losses. It also bears noting that France has, on occasion, quietly sent submarine forces to train with the U.S. in the Pacific.
But the import of Macron’s words last week must not be underestimated. France has clearly decided it is more important to echo Xi’s rhetoric and win his trade favor than it is to stand with France’s oldest ally in defense of the post-1945 democratic order. There’s a hard lesson for the U.S. here. But perhaps one we should have seen coming. France has also been utterly deficient in its support to Ukraine as that nation bears the brunt of the most serious challenge to the European order since 1945. Macron might speak about order, but only where it aligns with French interests.