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French President Emmanuel Macron created a firestorm on his visit to China to meet with President Xi Jinping by talking about strategic autonomy and distancing himself from defense of Taiwan. The rebuke was quick and harsh.

French President’s ‘Strategic Autonomy’ Sparks Sharp Backlash

French President Emmanuel Macron is no stranger to controversy. His unilateral decision to raise the retirement age sparked street rioting in Paris. Now his comments about China and Taiwan are sparking an international ruckus.

Macron went to Beijing ostensibly to encourage the Chinese to persuade Russian President Vladimir Putin to back off his invasion of Ukraine. He wound up appearing to side with China on the fate of Taiwan and in the process giving China a PR boost while irritating key U.S. allies.

The timing of Macron’s comments was especially awkward as China launched large-scale combat drills simulating how it would isolate Taiwan, which Chinese President Xi Jinping could happen as early as 2027.

Citing his concept of European “strategic autonomy”, Macron said France doesn’t want to be caught between a “bloc versus bloc” conflict involving the United States and China. Macron also said Europe doesn’t want to be swept into a “crises that would not be ours.” “The worst thing would be to think that we Europeans must become followers on this topic and adapt to the American rhythm or a Chinese overreaction,” he explained.

Sharp, Instantaneous Rebuke
Macron’s comments spurred instant response. Ivo Daalder, President Obama’s foreign policy adviser and NATO ambassador, responded, “Macron doesn’t want Europe to get ‘caught up in crisis that are not ours,’ like Taiwan. But he is perfectly fine with relying on a U.S. security commitment to address crises like Ukraine in Europe. That’s not ‘strategic autonomy.’ That’s strategic nonsense.”

Norbert Röttgen, a German parliamentarian and former chair of the Bundestag’s foreign affairs committee, said Macron had turned his trip to China into “a PR coup for [Chinese President] Xi and a foreign policy disaster” for Europe. “With his idea of sovereignty, which he defines in demarcation rather than partnership with the USA, he is increasingly isolating himself in Europe,” Röttgen said.

Reinhard Butiköfer, who chairs the European parliament’s China delegation, described Macron’s China visit as a “complete disaster”. He said Macron’s “pipe dream” of EU strategic autonomy and becoming a “third superpower” was “beyond the pale”.

Macron also ruffled the feathers of Senator Marco Rubio. “We need to find out if Emmanuel Macron speaks for Europe. After his 6-hour meeting in China, he told reporters that Europe should create distance with the U.S. and should not get involved in supporting America over China when it comes to Taiwan.” Then, Rubio added, “Maybe we shouldn’t be picking sides either.”

The Wall Street Journal in an editorial said Macron’s views “undermine U.S. and Japanese deterrence against China in the western Pacific, while encouraging U.S. politicians who want to reduce American commitments in Europe. If President Biden is awake, he ought to call Mr. Macron and ask if he’s trying to re-elect Donald Trump.”

Following in the footsteps of President Trump, some congressional members complain that few NATO allies have achieved their self-imposed 2024 goal of spending at least 2 percent of Gross Domestic Product on defense.

Softening the Blow
A French spokesman in Washington tried to allay concerns over Macron’s remarks. “The U.S. is our ally with whom we share our values. We seek to engage with China for peace and stability in Ukraine. Our position on Taiwan has not changed either. What [Macron] is saying: if we cannot end the conflict in Ukraine, what credibility will we have on Taiwan?”

John Kirby, the White House National Security Council spokesman, also tried to smooth over Macron’s remarks. “The U.S. and France have terrific bilateral cooperation and closely coordinate on security issues in Ukraine, the Indo-Pacific, the Sahel and elsewhere,” he said. “We’re focused on making sure that together we’re meeting the national security requirements of both countries.”

Macron still chafes at the United States undercutting France’s submarine deal with Australia by offering to sell its U.S. nuclear submarine technology. He also has raised concerns with the buy-America policies in the Infrastructure Investment Act and the CHIPS Act. Macron hinted France and Europe may advance their own domestic infrastructure investment legislation.

Macron undermined U.S. and Japanese deterrence against China in the western Pacific, while encouraging U.S. politicians who want to reduce American commitments in Europe.

European Sovreignty
This week, Macron is making a two-day state visit to The Netherlands where he will give a speech on Europe’s sovereignty, with a focus on the economy and industry. Previously, Macron has aspired for the 27-member European Union to become the world’s third superpower in the next decade and the “third pole” on international relations.

Inadvertently, Macron’s Taiwan-related comments resurfaced concerns that U.S. military supplies are being depleted in support of Ukraine at a time of heightened concern over a potential Chinese blockade or invasion of Taiwan.

Current Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, who raised the ire of Chinese leaders by meeting with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy in Los Angeles, is finishing her second four-year term and unable to run again. The Taiwanese presidential election has been set for January 2024, coinciding with its legislative elections.

Vice President William Lai, the front-runner for the Democratic Progressive Party nomination, has pledged to protect Taiwan from China. Foxconn Technology Group founder Terry Gou, a frontrunner in the opposition KMT party, has embraced a more conciliatory approach to China. Historically, the KMT has been the preferred Taiwanese political partner for China.

With the election less than a year away, Beijing signaled it will resume imports from more than 60 Taiwanese food exporters it barred last year to show displeasure with President Tsai and her efforts to foster closer ties with the United States.