Avoiding crises: France and the Chinese threat  

By Barah Mikaïl

France is an important country within the European Union (EU). Its economic power, and the fact that it has a permanent seat at the United Nations Security council, strengthen its diplomatic influence. France’s policies towards China aim to reach a balance, far from tensions. The question is, to what extent the nature of France’s relations towards China can remain the same at a moment when there is growing criticism towards Beijing, its attempts to hinder Human Rights, and its very timid dissociation from Russia and its actions towards Ukraine. 

France’s China principles  

France’s policy towards China is driven by the “One China Policy” (dealing with China independently from its territorial claims), which is different from the “One China Principle” (recognizing China’s territorial claims). This tradition was initiated by President Charles de Gaulle back in 1964. Since then, France dealt with China without putting Taiwan at the center of things. In fact, France does not recognize Taiwan as a sovereign state entity.  

Paris also opposed repeatedly the idea of having a referendum organized in Taiwan. Even when China-France relations were tense, such as under Nicolas Sarkozy’s presidency (2007-2012), the French kept separating Taiwan from issues such as Human Rights, Tibet, or even Xinjiang.  

Since Emmanuel Macron came to power in 2017, he has not questioned France’s traditional diplomacy towards China. Seen from Paris, China is an emerging power that is increasingly and considerably developing its means and its international ambitions in the context of worldwide economic dependency towards Chinese production and its exportations. From France’s point of view, as we can understand it from a February 2022 parliamentary report, China will be a major power by 2049. 

But the French presidency is also pragmatic and views any confrontation with China as counterproductive and an error. The fact that Taiwan has representations on the French soil is also accepted. France prefers to favor positive perspectives towards China, by focusing on economic agreements and technological partnerships. At the same time, France knows it is dealing with a “systemic rival” that it needs to keep as a partner.  

We can still wonder about the existence of game changers that could influence China-France relations, such as the current situation in Ukraine. Since February 2022 and the official start of the “war on Ukraine,” France has favored an approach based on dialogue and diplomacy with Russia. But the strategy proved its limits and war couldn’t be avoided. Some observers think that this implies that current US and EU-Russian tensions could lead to a wider problem between these same protagonists, but others disagree with this perception. EU members may expect China to distance itself from Russia and its policy towards Ukraine; so far, indications are that France-China relations may not be conditioned by Ukraine. And since France is a central actor within the European Union, the other 26 EU State members take its voice into account.  

A possible indicator: the visit of a French delegation to Taiwan 

In France, senatorial and parliamentarian delegations often pay official visits to foreign countries and regions, with no obligation to obtain a previous governmental green light. According to Emmanuel Lincot, a researcher at the Paris-based Institute for International and Strategic Relations (IRIS) and professor at the Catholic Institute of Paris, “the visits of such delegations are part of France’s democratic tradition and activities, something that Chinese find hard to understand.” David Andelman, a columnist at CNN Opinion, expresses that China seems to not perceive the fact that there is a separation, a division even, between the French Senate and parliament on the one hand, and the French Presidency on the other hand. 

In the case of Taiwan, visits of French representatives happened regularly in the past, and had then to be suspended because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Jean-Vincent Brisset, a specialist of China at IRIS and a former attaché in the French representation in Taiwan, notes that with the passing of time, the officials that represent France in Taiwan have tended to be more and more people of “high profile.” 

The French government can always be prompt on encouraging a delegation to travel to certain countries to convey specific messages; but, once again, nothing indicates that this has happened with Taiwan. Though, from Emmanuel Lincot’s point of view, it should be taken into account that “France also wants the Chinese to understand that it is uncomfortable with their double-standard approach.” 

That said, at the French legislative level, some figures are very much involved in trying to keep the “Taiwan cause” high on the French agenda. Barthélémy Courmont, a senior researcher at IRIS and professor at the Catholic university of Lille in France, confirms that the group of solidarity with Taiwan is the strongest within the French Senate. But the one doesn’t condition the other, thanks to the prevalence of a democratic system in France. The French presidency favors pragmatism, and in the name of this principle, it tends to be rather cautious on the points and issues that may end up angering Beijing. 

France’s ambitions towards China and the Indo-Pacific 

Paris wants to be a privileged and peculiar actor at the time of playing a role in the Indo-Pacific, far from any interference from its EU counterparts. 

But the problem for France is that it seems to be left behind by the members of AUKUS, an Australia-US-UK alliance whose central goal is to counter Chinese influence in the Indo-Pacific. This situation ends up considerably weakening France’s image and stance towards China. According to some French diplomats, Beijing sees France as a normal player that has regional ambitions but lacks the means to consolidate these. Jean-Vincent Brisset adds that, from China’s point of view, France is not seen as a major actor, but rather as an average actor that exists next to many others. Furthermore, France prefers to avoid seeing other European countries interfering in the Indo-Pacific, which does not help it in finding reliable and strong allies. 

France needs China though, not only for economic and technological reasons, but also because it needs to manage Beijing. The perception from France is that China has become more “aggressive” over the last few years, with a growing tendency to criticize any voice in France that would be perceived as disrespectful towards China. But this does not mean that Paris would necessarily take a long-term firm stance towards Beijing. Back in 2021, verbal attacks from the Chinese Embassy in France against China specialist Antoine Bondaz led to political tensions and arguments over academic freedom, but those would be quickly followed by a more positive context.  

It is also important to notice that this paradox that makes France reluctant to act with its European counterparts in the Pacific, but also keen on connecting its China approach with the interests and the orientations of the EU. Obviously, by doing so, France means to suggest that it cares about the EU, and that it has a privileged position and responsibility towards it. But this may also France’s way to communicate that it shares the EU’s “peaceful approach” to situations. Deep down, France needs cooperation with China, and so does the EU: Paris will most likely stick to this argument, especially at a time when the supply chain crises that prevail at the commercial and economic level give even more importance to keeping China a privileged strategic partner. Some years ago, France was angry after Australia cancelled a multi-billion-dollar submarines contract. Australia then joined AUKUS. Harold Hyman, a journalist with French information TV channel Cnews, sees that France would like to “take revenge” and develop a strategic track of its own, but it also knows that it lacks the means to do so. In other words, even Paris needs to rely on the US first in terms of strategic cooperation and military agreements and partnerships. 

The myth of a France-China confrontation? 

This does not mean that if the US had to engage a serious confrontation with China, France would necessarily participate to anti-China military operations. Paris needs to abide by some US demands because of the nature of the political context, because it is part of NATO, and because it is part of the “Western world.” But in the case of a US-China military confrontation, we can also imagine that France may limit its participation and its solidarity with the US to some intelligence-sharing and logistical aspects. Barthélémy Courmont believes that France would avoid engaging into any war scenario between the US and China. At the same time, prospects to see the US pressuring China are rather limited in the current context. However, the US could try and pressure France to make it part of its strategy and military architecture in the Indo-Pacific. 

In the case of an economic and/or commercial radical US-China war, France would most likely be reluctant to engage on either side. It is worth mentioning how the afore-mentioned report published by the French Parliament in February 2022 recommended that France enhance its commercial and economic cooperation with China. Other recommendations were that points of contention with China (mainly those related to human rights) be mentioned by France, but without necessarily being put at the center of France-China relations. Any increase in US-China tensions would necessarily get France to have to show solidarity with the US rather than China, and France may even decrease its economic cooperation with Beijing if it is forced to do so by Washington. 

But this does not mean that in this case, France-China cooperation would stop necessarily. Only US sanctions based on a mechanism like the one adopted in the case of Iran may get France to abide by the US demands. And the same would extend – undoubtedly – to the case of the EU and all its member states. 

Barah Mikaïl is an associate Professor of International Security at SLU-Madrid and Director of the Observatory on Contemporary Crises.

To quote this article or video, please use the following reference:  Barah Mikaïl (2022), “Avoiding crises: France and the Chinese threat”  https://crisesobservatory.es/avoiding-crises-france-and-the-chinese-threat/.

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