Strategic Autonomy: A Divisive Concept Amid Shifting Alliances

Francois Heisbourg

Francois Heisbourg discusses the recent meeting between Presidents Macron and Xi as part of the 2023 France-China and whether it marks a shift in France’s engagement with China. He explores the concept of strategic autonomy and its reception within the EU, as well as the EU’s ability to maintain a unified approach towards China while accommodating the competing interests of individual member states. Heisbourg also reflects on the impact of Macron’s trip on France’s efforts to position itself as a bridge between Europe and China.

Does the recent meeting between President Macron and President Xi mark a shift in the way France intends to engage China?

It certainly looks like one because there have been two previous full-dress meetings between Xi Jinping and President Macron, plus several other events, most recently in Bali last year. This one was indeed quite different in the sense that President Macron went out of his way, in a manner that had not been the case previously, to appear to please his Chinese interlocutor. Whether this is a lasting shift is another question. But yes, this was a meeting like none before it.

How has the idea of strategic autonomy been received broadly within the EU? Is it potentially a reflection of growing skepticism toward the transatlantic partnership?

It depends on what one calls skepticism. For many people, there is a serious fear—I think a well-founded fear—that, indeed, the transatlantic compact of the last 70 years is on its way out. President Trump did not have time enough to withdraw the United States from NATO, but he came pretty close to doing it according to accounts, which were made subsequently by a number of NATO officials and partners. Even if a Trumpian President doesn’t come to power in 2025, the fact is that the rise of China means that the United States is going to have to devote more energy to operating in the Indo-Pacific. That is the least controversial part of strategic autonomy.

Strategic autonomy could be a non-controversial idea. It has been part of the French lexicon, in the European Framework since at least 2010—several years before Macron came to power. What’s behind the notion is that if a country wants to be sovereign, in terms of the choices it makes, it needs to have the tools which allow it to exercise that sovereignty. More specifically, if one assumes, and I think it’s a fair assumption, that the United States will be focusing its efforts and resources more and more on the Indo-Pacific in the coming decades, and that Europe will be invited to bear a larger share of the burden of the defence of Europe, then we’re going to have to develop the means of European sovereignty.

Stated that way, you will find that most European countries are already practicing strategic autonomy. Poland is certainly making very big efforts to acquire military and political capabilities, which it didn’t have before.

Nonetheless, Strategic autonomy has been received terribly. It’s getting very little traction as a notion in Europe because some countries are unhappy at the implication that they’re going to have to pull more weight. The French take is one which may encourage the United States to leave or may actually be a cover for pushing the Americans out. When you put these different constituencies together, you’ll find a Europe in which strategic autonomy is not a consensus item and is distinctly unpopular for many reasons.

What impact will the fallout from Macron’s China trip have on France’s efforts to position itself as a bridge between Europe and China?

Very negative. Macron was clear and very deliberate. He wasn’t pretending to be otherwise. He was speaking for France, not for Europe as a collective. Ursula von der Leyen was part of the trip, and she was indeed speaking more collectively, articulating what could be a common European position vis-à-vis China. In the case of Europe, this wasn’t so much about building bridges as it was about trying to reduce dependencies—what von der Leyen calls de-risking, which is another way of saying decoupling.

It’s a more strategic, less commercial version of decoupling. It is a quite sensible approach, I think, given what China is becoming on the global scene, which is another superpower and one which very much has its own interests. That was not the line that President Macron was pushing. Indeed, the most vocal expressions of bewilderment about his visit, and his statements, didn’t come from the U.S. administration, but rather, from other European countries—Germany and the countries of the eastern part of the European Union and NATO. They suspect President Macron is trying to get President Xi to work towards a mediation on the Ukrainian conflict, on terms that would not necessarily be the most favourable to Ukraine.

How do you see the European Union reconciling the need to maintain a unified approach towards China with the competing interests and priorities of individual member states?

It is probably not as difficult as it sounds. China’s place in the EU economies is relatively similar. Every country is dependent, to some extent, on China. That’s certainly the case for Germany, which has a positive trade balance with China. It is highly dependent on China buying things from Germany. All of us are dependent on Chinese exports. All of us, like the U.S., are dependent on Chinese minerals, raw materials, and technologies. China is one of two superpowers, which affect us all in Europe.

When Mrs. von der Leyen spelled out the vision of what the relationship with China should be, which she did about a week before the trip to China, it didn’t draw that much controversy. I wouldn’t assume that the European Union is unable to craft a coherent and cohesive line. It’s going to be quite difficult. The debates within respective EU countries will be very difficult—notably in Germany, simply because Germany is the biggest and also has a specific set of interests, in the sense that Germany is export-dependent, even more than it is import-dependent vis-à-vis China. But that is an ongoing debate. It looks as if that debate is moving towards the camp of those who would prefer to see dependency on China be limited and reduced.

That’s certainly the case within the Green Party, which is one of the three parties of the coalition. It’s also the case in the Social Democratic Party, but they are more divided. These are probably not going to be showstoppers. I see many more signs of unification of positions than of division. It must be said that the Chinese are helping us greatly through their predatory trade practices—trying to force the Netherlands, for example, to export highly sensitive equipment necessary for developing and forging higher cutting-edge semiconductors to China, which are then produced in Taiwan. China has had quite a good record of making itself unpopular over the last few years. COVID has played a major role here. China had an arrogant approach towards the whole affair, beginning with its refutations and ongoing refusal to try to find out how the whole mess began. I’m not particularly pessimistic about this question.

How can France balance its support for Taiwan while maintaining diplomatic relations with China? What challenges do you think France would face should some conflict emerge between Taiwan and China?

In the same way every other country which recognizes China must try to deal with this. All of us have recognized the Beijing government as the sole representative of China. This happened nearly half a century ago, with the Taiwan Relations Act. What posed a problem during President Macron’s visit to Beijing is that he didn’t actually spell out during his visit that we favoured the status quo. He eventually did so when he came back. I think that the status quo answer is the one that applies to just about everybody, aside from Guatemala, Paraguay, the Vatican, the Marshall Islands, etc. There are a handful of countries that recognize Taiwan as being the representative of China.

How would France and Europe react? Generally speaking, for Europe, anything like a war in the Taiwan Straits or in the East China and South China Seas, would be a complete disaster. More than half of the world’s trade goes through those waters. If you live in Vancouver, it’s okay. but that’s just about the only part of the world which is not highly dependent for its prosperity on peace prevailing in the Taiwan region. We saw that during the Second World War as well. Taiwan was an absolutely crucial strategic asset for Japan when it embarked on its conquest of the Pacific. Therefore, what happens there cannot be a matter of indifference to the Europeans.

The French started doing what the Americans call freedom of navigation operations back in 2015-16. We have been pushing our warships through the Taiwan Straits on quite a regular basis. Most recently, I think, was last year with a very substantial military vessel and specialized intelligence gathering. Other Europeans have been doing the same, notably the Brits. Our basic interest is freedom of the seas. That is an interest we share with the Americans, another is [not having] a large dictatorship swallow a small democracy—we’ve seen that this is not very helpful for the maintenance of international order.

Although the Europeans will, for fairly obvious geographical reasons, not be a first-ranked player in the region. In the case of France, you have a specific item, which is that we have close to 4 million citizens who live and work and vote in the Indian Ocean and in the Pacific Ocean. This is a unique case amongst the Western countries—New Caledonia, French Polynesia, and so on. Close to 4 million people out of 67 million French people. That’s quite a significant number. It’s one of the reasons why we have been working very actively with India politically, strategically, and militarily, and will obviously continue to do so. The Indian interest vis-à-vis China is one which I think is congruent with our interests as well as the United States. I hope things will never go downhill, but we cannot assume a best-case scenario and that’s been taken on board certainly by French political leaders and the military. Certainly, under Macron, but even before as well.

I’m glad Canada is realizing that it’s also a Pacific power. I’ve been going to the Shangri La Dialogue, ever since it was set up by the IISS, and the one great Pacific Power which was underrepresented, underpowered, if I can put it that way, was Canada. That is beginning to change. Hopefully, it will continue to do so. I also recognize that it’s not easy because there’s a lot Canada has on top of the commercial, trade, and technological interests which makes your relations with China very difficult to disentangle and handle. You also have a human interest—there are many Chinese residents on your West Coast, and that is a factor that makes Canada quite special.

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