China / Europe / Trade

“Strategic Autonomy”: Macron Splinters on Western Relations with China 

Executive Summary 

  • This month, French President Emmanuel Macron and European Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen met with Chinese President Xi Jingping in China to discuss political and economic ties between Europe and China. 
  • During the summit, Macron denounced American and European efforts to economically “decouple” from China and reiterated the French desire for European “strategic autonomy” in the transatlantic relationship with the United States. 
  • Macron’s comments demonstrate the contrasting diplomatic goals among the West in relation to China, particularly France’s desire to deepen ties with China while many in the United States and the European Union urgently seek to “friend-shore” critical supply chains and “de-risk” from the Chinese market.  


On April 6th, 2023, French President Emmanuel Macron and European Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen met with Chinese President Xi Jingping in his hometown of Guangzhou, China to discuss the bilateral relationship of Europe and China. The conversation centered on Sino-European trade relations, climate change and global solutions, the Ukraine war, and tensions in Taiwan. The summit came at a time of rising geopolitical tensions between the West and China concerning Chinese forced labor, unfair trade practices, lack of Chinese efforts in decarbonization, China’s deepening alliance with Russia, and the potential invasion of Taiwan.  

Macron’s Charm Offensive 

The trilateral meeting of Macron, Von der Leyen, and Jingping exemplified the significance of Macron’s three-day visit to China that included several stops across the country with great fanfare, a great contrast to protests at home in France. In his first stop during the summit, Macron addressed a large crowd of the French community in Beijing and identified the goals of the summit:  

  • To involve China in shared responsibility for peace and stability; 
  • To strengthen the Franco-Chinese trade relationship; 
  • To recommit to a common framework of action on major international issues such as the fight against climate change and the protection of biodiversity. 
  • To recall the importance of revitalizing cultural links between France and China to prepare for the Olympics and the 60th anniversary of diplomatic relations between France and China.  

The trilateral meeting also brought similar flattering rhetoric from Macron towards China, noting how the European Union can be the “third superpower,” therefore declaring China as the second. In a shock to many in the international community, Macron decried the European Union’s close relationship with the United States and stressed the importance of French “strategic autonomy” in economic and foreign relations.  

Strategic Autonomy 

Since his election in 2017, “strategic autonomy” has been a recurring theme of Maron’s trade and foreign policy. Macron has been adamant about his desire for French and European autonomy in trade, foreign relations, and defense, often in contrast with Europeans who believe in the strength of the transatlantic relationship. Macron denounced the idea of decoupling from China’s economy and stressed close economic cooperation, as China is the European Union’s largest trading partner in goods. In contrast to Von der Leyen and many European leaders, Macron stressed the economic significance of EU-China trade and again criticized the dependence on American trade: “We will not have the time, nor the means to finance our own strategic autonomy and we will become vassals, whereas we could become the third pole if we have a few years to develop this”. 

Macron also fractured from the European mantra on defense and diplomatic support for Taiwan, stating that entering a potential conflict would be a “trap for Europe” if it got “caught in crises that are not ours.” He again cited the ethos of strategic autonomy in claiming that “the worst of things would be to think that we Europeans must be followers on this subject and adapt ourselves to an American rhythm and a Chinese overreaction.” 

“Multi-Polar World” 

Macron’s comments in China received criticism both in the United States and within the European Union for his staunch economic commitments to China and concessions regarding Taiwan. The European Union is the focal point of the American effort to “friend-shore” critical supply chains and markets away from China and other adversaries. As the United States is the European Union’s largest trading partner and together account for one-third of global trade, many on Capitol Hill were shocked about Macron’s criticism of the transatlantic reliance. Todd Young (R-Ind), member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, criticized Macron’s rhetoric: “the Chinese Communist Party is the most significant challenge to Western society, our economic security, and our way of life…France must be clear-eyed about this threat.” The Biden Administration publicly was less concerned than lawmakers on the Hill. The State Department downplayed Macron’s statements and reassured global allies that “there is immense convergence between us and our European allies and partners and how we tackle [China’s] challenge head-on.”  

Many in the European Union expressed dismay at Macron’s suggestion of increasing economic relations with China, as well as his approach to Ukraine and dismissal of Taiwanese security. Demonstrated by her cold reception in China, Xi knew his greatest ally in the summit would be Macron due to Von der Leyen’s hawkish rhetoric prior to the meeting. Just a week before the trilateral meeting, Von der Leyen emphasized the need to “de-risk” from China and called for the bloc to be “bolder and faster” in using economic tools to counter “systemic rivals.” Similarly, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock followed Von der Leyen in calling China a “systemic rival” rather than a trade partner in a diplomatic visit in the following week. Italy, the third traditional European power, is also struggling with economic relations with China. Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, who successfully gained her seat on an economically protectionist and anti-China platform, is unsure whether she will renew Italy’s partnership in China’s Belt and Road Initiative. The varying economic policies among the traditional European powers, as well as the European Union community, illustrates the lack of cohesive economic policy in Europe regarding China.