Xi Outplays Macron

7 April 2023

Escaping his troubles at home, Emmanuel Macron is visiting China. The visit has two distinct and some would say quite contradictory goals: on the one hand, France wants to do more business with China; on the other, Macron wants to enlist Chinese support in pressuring Russia to come to terms on Ukraine. In furtherance of the first goal, Macron brought with him a retinue of French economic officials and businessmen; in furtherance of the second, he brought Ursula von der Leyen, who was evidently supposed to represent the “tough” side of Europe’s opposition to Russia while Macron (as is his wont) played the mediator.

In the event, Xi seems to have found a way to parry Macron’s ploy by flattering him while sidelining von der Leyen. The French president and the Chinese premier had tea in Guangzhou, a city where Xi’s father was once a high official, while von der Leyen was excluded from a number of high-profile events, in a maneuver reminiscent of her snub by Erdogan during a joint visit with Charles Michel to Turkey, precipitating an affair known as “Sofagate.” As in a previous attempt to combine flattery with firmness with Putin, Macron seems to be a bit over his head. Still, it’s not out of the question that his naive efforts could serve as a catalyst, or pretext, for more serious negotiations. And he did get Xi to reiterate his statement that nuclear weapons should not be used in Ukraine.

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