Since November 2022, a number of important European leaders – Olaf Scholz of Germany (November 2022), Pedro Sanchez of Spain (March 2023), Ursula von der Leyen of the European Commission, and Emmanuel Macron of France – have visited China in what can be considered a policy move that clearly contradicts concerted US attempts at “do-coupling” from China. When Macron visited China, he was accompanied by a business delegation of more than 60 executives from French enterprises, including Airbus, with many seeking deep cooperation with China in the wake of China’s opening up after its “Zero COVID” policy.
The European ‘look China’ policy is not changing in ways Washington hoped it would when it started implementing its ‘Cold War 2.0’ global agenda. In fact, the reverse is happening and is quite likely to continue to happen, pointing to the fact that Europe and the US, despite being formal allies, are not in the same page and that major differences exist. More importantly, these differences are no longer confined to backdoor talks and negotiations but have become public recently.
Most recently, key US allies in Europe (and Japan) opposed Washington’s plans to ban all G7 exports to Russia. The ban would hurt many countries, many of which already have their economies facing a downward trend for the past one year or so. In addition to the economic consequences for the G7 nations of such a decision, a total ban would also complicate the ongoing military conflict. For one thing, Russia has responded to this threat by threatening to end the Ukraine grain deal – a deal, if cancelled, would not only hurt European economies but many other economies in the Middle East and Africa as well.
More importantly, this (proposed) ban and the consequent (possible) Russian retaliation also runs counter to the ongoing European efforts, led by France’s Macron, to bring the Russia-Ukraine military conflict to a negotiated end. The French stance for bringing the conflict to a negotiated end with help from China is gaining traction insofar as other European countries are also waking up to it. For instance, Italy’s defense minister recently supported the idea that China should be an interlocutor at the negating table.” This view is rooted in Europe’s economic ties with China.
In March 2023, the President of Spain said that Europe and China are inseparable as economic partners insofar as they are competitors as well as partners “in the development of transport, energy and health infrastructure projects”, adding there is ample room for cooperation between Europe and China and that “We must remain economic partners, and our relationship must extend beyond that.”
The French president couldn’t agree more when he said, in China, that France should not get caught in the US-China confrontation on the whole or vis-à-vis the issue of Taiwan. The difference in French policy vis-à-vis China is not just a political matter. In fact, it is rooted in what can be called a European search for strategic autonomy from the US in the foreign policy arena. To emphasize this, Macron minced no words when he said that even though France was a US ally – and a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization as well – they are not a US “vassal.”
Even though Washington downplayed the significance of Macron’s comments, saying that the US remains “comfortable and confident in the terrific bilateral relationship” with France, there is little denying that what macron said is not one isolated statement. In fact, it is a continuation of his past positions, repeatedly contradicting the US.
In June 2022, for instance, he said that any policy of “humiliating” Russia will be wrong. In December 2022, he proposed security guarantees for Moscow to bring the ongoing conflict to an end. While many in Washington – and in the US mainstream media – see the French position as a rush to give undue concessions to Moscow, France sees this position as necessary to save Europe itself from experiencing any further damages from this conflict caused by the US push to expand NATO into Ukraine, undermine Russian security, and encircle Russia on a permanent basis.
Where does it leave the US? There is little denying that the US push against China (and Russia) is becoming harder and harder in terms of its long-term sustainability. If European leaders continue with parallel processes of engagement with China and use this engagement with China to resolve the Russia-Ukraine conflict, it will undercut Washington much more directly than has been the case so far.
More importantly, a continuing shift in Europe away from the US and towards China – and ultimately conflict resolution with Russia – will defeat the whole US narrative of “isolating” Russia and/or “de-coupleing” from China. Such a defeat will not only be political but also in terms of the US inability to shape, even normatively, Europe’s foreign policy. In geopolitical terms, this will solidify Europe as an independent power center, which will further shift the world from two blocks (one led by the US and the other by the US rivals) to multipolarity. A shift towards multipolarity will also underpin the success of the vision of global politics that China and Russia have been favoring for the past few years now.
Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.“