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Diplomacy Watch: Macron pushes Xi on China-Russia ties

Diplomacy Watch: Macron pushes Xi on China-Russia ties

The French leader’s 3-day trip to China highlights Paris’s potential influence in Beijing.

Asia-Pacific

French President Emmanuel Macron traveled this week to China, where he urged President Xi Jinping to push Russia on its war in Ukraine.

“The Russian aggression in Ukraine has dealt a blow to [international] stability,” Macron said in a joint press conference with Xi. “I know I can count on you to bring back Russia to reason and everyone back to the negotiating table.”

Xi, for his part, said peace must come through a “political solution” and urged “restraint from all political partners” in Ukraine.

The two leaders met multiple times during the three-day trip and even made a joint visit to Guangzhou, giving the pair plenty of time to chat on their way to the major southern city. European Commission head Ursula von der Leyen joined for some of those meetings but generally received a much less lavish welcome than her French colleague.

Macron’s choice of entourage — a delegation of 50 French business leaders — left little doubt that the primary reason for his journey was economic. But the good news is that Sino-European economic ties could make the French leader’s message on Ukraine all the more persuasive.

While U.S. policymakers are anxious to “de-couple” from China, their European counterparts are less willing to sacrifice their own economic wellbeing in the service of a new cold war. (Von der Leyen said prior to the trip that she preferred a more cautious “de-risking” approach to EU-China ties, though Macron has yet to endorse the idea.) This helps explain why the French president is the third European leader to visit China in recent months. 

Fortunately, that economic leverage cuts both ways. China will most likely need Europe’s help if Beijing wants to meet its ambitious growth targets — something it has struggled to do in recent years. This may be why Chinese diplomats made an effort to distance themselves from Russia just as Macron began his trip.

In an interview published Wednesday by the New York Times, China’s EU ambassador said that some analysts “deliberately misinterpret” Beijing’s avowedly neutral stance on the war “because there’s the so-called ‘no limit’ friendship or relationship” between China and Russia. “‘No limit’ is nothing but rhetoric,” Fu Cong said.

Whether Macron succeeded in moving Xi remains unclear. While China’s premier said the trip marked “a new starting point” for EU-China ties, there is plenty of evidence that Beijing’s warm welcomes during official visits don’t always mean there’s a policy shift in the offing. The most concrete outcome was the news that Xi told Macron he was ready to call Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky “when the time comes,” according to Agence France Presse.

But the potential upsides make it well worth the effort, as an anonymous French diplomat explained to the New York Times prior to the trip.

“Only China can have a game-changer effect,” the diplomat argued. “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.”

In other diplomatic news related to the war in Ukraine:

— A top Brazilian official visited Moscow and met with Russian leaders in an effort to encourage peace talks with Ukraine, according to Reuters. Celso Amorim, who is President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s top foreign policy aide, said after his trip that the door to negotiations is not “totally closed” and that a shift toward diplomacy could come “sooner than expected.” “There is no magic solution. But there will come a time when, on one side or the other, a realization will emerge that the cost of war — not just the political cost, but the human and economic cost — will be greater than the cost of the concessions needed for peace,” Amorim argued.

— A top Ukrainian official told the Financial Times Wednesday that Kyiv would negotiate directly with Moscow over the status of Crimea if Ukrainian forces reach the border of the strategically important peninsula. “If we will succeed in achieving our strategic goals on the battlefield and when we will be on the administrative border with Crimea, we are ready to open [a] diplomatic page to discuss this issue,” said Andriy Sybiha, the deputy leader of Ukraine’s presidential office, who cautioned that Kyiv “does not exclude the way of liberation by our army.”

— On Sunday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken told his Russian counterpart that Moscow must release American journalist Evan Gershkovich, who Russian authorities arrested on charges of espionage last week, according to the Wall Street Journal. In its readout of the call, the Kremlin accused Washington of politicizing Gershkovich’s arrest and insisted on the “need to respect the decisions of the Russian authorities.” Gershkovich met with his lawyers for the first time on Tuesday, but American officials in Russia have yet to get access to the jailed reporter.

— It’s now been more than six months since a trio of explosions tore through the Nord Stream pipelines. While theories of potential culprits abound, official investigations have yet to turn up much useful information on the high-profile caper. The lack of leads may be intentional, according to a recent piece in the Washington Post.

“At gatherings of European and NATO policymakers, officials have settled into a rhythm, said one senior European diplomat: “Don’t talk about Nord Stream.” Leaders see little benefit from digging too deeply and finding an uncomfortable answer, the diplomat said, echoing sentiments of several peers in other countries who said they would rather not have to deal with the possibility that Ukraine or allies were involved.” [...]

“In the absence of concrete clues, an awkward silence has prevailed.

“It’s like a corpse at a family gathering,” the European diplomat said, reaching for a grim analogy. Everyone can see there’s a body lying there, but pretends things are normal. “It’s better not to know.””

U.S. State Department news:

In a Thursday press conference, State Department spokesperson Vedant Patel argued that observers should not view Macron’s visit to China as a sign of discord between American and French policy toward the country. “The United States and France share concerns regarding the challenge the PRC poses to the rules-based international order, including through Beijing’s ongoing support for Russia’s war against Ukraine,” Patel contended.

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