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It’s the Economy (and More): Why Macron and von der Leyen are in China – Expert Quick Takes

In the following compilation of expert quick takes, a diverse group of experts on Europe, China, international trade, and strategic competition offer a peek into what to expect and not expect from the visit of French President Macron and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen to China.

On April 4, French President Macron and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen are scheduled to visit President Xi in China. In the following compilation of expert quick takes, a diverse group of experts on Europe, China, international trade, and strategic competition offer readers a peek into what to expect and not expect from, as well as the significance of, the upcoming state visit. Taken together, this collection of analysis captures the breadth of challenges in EU-China relations, transatlantic unity, and the future of international cooperation in support of Ukraine. 

Nicola Casarini, Senior Associate Fellow, Istituto Affari Internazionali

Expect the two European leaders to present China with a united front on various issues, ranging from trade and human rights to Taiwan and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Speaking with a single voice is important, as the EU is actively seeking to develop a China policy that relies on strong coordination between member states and EU institutions. Yet, von der Leyen’s and Macron’s approaches to China will also have differences, not only in tone but also in substance.

Essentially, the European Commission President will stress the need to continue engaging China while ‘de-risking’ from too close an embrace with the Asian giant – an approach designed to avoid becoming too dependent on a country labeled as a ’systemic rival’. Von der Leyen’s agenda is closer to Washington than that of the French President, who will reiterate the notion of Europe’s strategic autonomy and push forward the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI), an accord that, if ratified, would boost trade and investment relations between the EU and China as well as have profound implications for the United States.

Ahead of Macron’s visit, France’s TotalEnergies and China National Offshore Oil Corporation completed Beijing’s first purchase of imported liquefied natural gas to be settled in Chinese yuan through the Shanghai Petroleum and Natural Gas Exchange - a move that, by reducing the power of the dollar in EU-China relations, gives content to the French President’s much touted ‘strategic autonomy’.

The visit of the two European leaders to Beijing and the issues at stake will undoubtedly highlight the need for continued transatlantic coordination on China-related issues. While much has been achieved in terms of alignment between the US and the EU, some differences in the economic and monetary fields will continue to prevail.

William Drozdiak, Global Fellow, Global Europe Program at the Wilson Center

French President Emmanuel Macron and the European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen embark this week on a critical visit to Beijing that could have important consequences for the strategic relationship between two of the world’s leading commercial powers. Under pressure from the United States, European leaders have adopted a tougher attitude toward China on human rights, highly sensitive technologies and Beijing’s reluctance to criticize Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But they also want to preserve Europe’s lucrative economic ties with its biggest trade partner.

For Macron, the trip to Beijing provides a welcome respite from violent protests and nationwide strikes at home over his controversial pension reforms. Macron is eager to enlist China’s help in mediating an end to Russia’s assault on Ukraine while insisting China must not provide lethal weapons to its Russian ally. French diplomats say Macron will deliver a clear message that, regardless of Beijing’s “no limits” partnership with Moscow, Europe cannot accept China sending arms to Russia and that doing so would jeopardize relations between the two commercial superpowers.

Von der Leyen has escalated her criticism of China, reflecting dismay in many EU capitals about Beijing’s behavior. She warned in a recent speech that China was becoming “more repressive at home and more assertive abroad.” A European Union strategy paper in 2019 designated China as “a partner for cooperation, an economic competitor and a systemic rival.” Since then, Europe has focused more than ever on China’s emergence as a strategic rival of the West. Nonetheless, von der Leyen has been careful to emphasize that Europe seeks to “de-risk” relations with China rather than emulate Washington’s policy of “decoupling.” 

Hon. Mark R. Kennedy, Director, Wahba Institute for Strategic Competition at the Wilson Center

During the upcoming visit on April 4 by French President Emmanuel Macron and European Union (EU) Commission President Ursula von der Leyen to Beijing, America will be looking for indications of Europe’s alignment or separation from America’s posture toward the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). 

The European leaders hope to convince CCP leader Xi Jinping to influence Moscow to bring an end to the conflict in Ukraine, also a focus of Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez’s discussion with Xi in Beijing last week. Xi hopes that Europe will join in pressing for a political settlement. The US would be concerned if they agreed on an outline that was detrimental to Ukraine. Von der Leyen’s comment last week that any proposal “which would in effect consolidate Russian annexations” of Ukrainian territory “is simply not a viable plan” does not suggest this is likely.

The CCP has been on a charm offensive trying to separate America and Europe. Any commitments by Europe to push back against either America’s drive to strengthen the alliance seeking to deter aggression or its effort to constrain the CCP’s access to dual-use technologies would be particularly problematic to the US. France’s recent agreement with the UK to coordinate naval carrier deployments to Asia suggests the former is unlikely. The EU recently agreed on how member countries can use countermeasures – such as imposing tariffs or export controls – against economic coercion from third countries. This was done with the possibility of the CCP retaliating against the Netherlands for restricting semiconductor producing equipment, suggesting the EU agreeing to oppose tech restrictions is also unlikely.

Xi may press for enacting the long-delayed 2020 EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment, though von der Leyen effectively quashed any hopes of that in her speech last week. Europe will likely press human rights concerns, but history suggests the CCP will not address those concerns. It is also possible that addressing climate, food security or supply chains generally will be areas of focus.

Expectations for forward movement are low. America hopes the European leaders reinforce, not complicate, its policy positions.

Elisabeth Koch, Staff Assistant Intern, Global Europe Program at the Wilson Center

Following German Bundeskanzler Olaf Scholz’s visit to China in November 2022 as the first European leader to travel to Beijing in three years, many European leaders are re-engaging bilaterally with China, including Spanish Prime Minister Sánchez and French President Macron. What sets apart President Macron’s visit is he will be joined by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. Her presence on the ground in Beijing and the increased statements by EU officials on China shows an effort from the Commission to unify EU Member States’ approach to China. 

This has been a challenge for the 27-member state bloc, where each state has its own unique relationship with China to consider. In the case of a common European approach to China, the Commission will have to balance wide-ranging national stakes ranging from Lithuania’s hard line on China to Germany’s, at times conciliatory, China policies. President von der Leyen’s visit to China may be the occasion to clarify the EU’s foreign policy on China. 

The European Union and China have a tradition dating back to 1998 of a yearly EU-China Summit. The last summit was conducted via videoconference in April 2022, but there has yet to be an announcement about a 2023 summit. EU-China Summits have long been shrouded with controversy. The 2021 EU-China Summit was canceled following the EU Parliament’s decision to freeze the EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI). The 23rd Summit also failed to deliver significant outcomes on human rights, economic coercion, or managing the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

President von der Leyen’s visit to China may allude to an upcoming announcement of the 24th EU-China Summit. Before that summit occurs, EU officials and leaders must take advantage of von der Leyen’s visit to Beijing and renewed dialogue with China to establish a common EU approach, as well as decide where the EU’s red lines are when it comes to China. 

Steven Philip Kramer, Global Fellow, Global Europe Program at the Wilson Center, author of a new book on Jews, Muslims and the French Republic

French President Emmanuel Macron’s trip to Beijing in the company of European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen could prove ill-fated. Chinese media may depict the constant stream of European leaders to Beijing as mirroring the tributes that used to be paid to the Emperor by China’s far-flung dependencies. But tributaries were expected to show due deference, not argue or negotiate. According to the Financial Times, von der Leyen has advocated “new defensive tools” on the part of Europe in the face of an increasingly assertive China at the same time as a senior Chinese diplomat warned “that any country that shredded business ties with his nation would do so at their own peril.” There may be little room for a middle ground. In the face of this clash, Macron’s favorite stance of “on the one hand and on the other” will not go over well – especially on Emperor Xi’s own turf.

Macron may hope that this trip will enable him to look presidential and divert attention from the crisis which continues to engulf France over pension reform – and the fact that it was passed without a majority vote in the National Assembly. A successful trip to China will do little to heal Macron’s reputation in France, but an unsuccessful trip would damage it further. Macron may well regret this trip.

Nicholas Lokker, Research Assistant, Transatlantic Security Program at Center for a New American Security (CNAS)

With his voyage to China late last week, Pedro Sánchez prepared the ground for this week’s visit by Emmanuel Macron and Ursula von der Leyen. The main shared objective of both trips is to prevent Beijing from increasing its support for Russia’s war against Ukraine. To this end, Sánchez urged Xi Jinping to directly discuss peace negotiations with Kyiv and appealed to China’s professed commitment to the principle of territorial integrity. While Macron and von der Leyen plan to echo this sentiment, it is doubtful whether Europe’s diplomatic blitz can significantly move the needle of Xi’s calculus.

The Spanish Prime Minister’s visit also illustrates Madrid’s growing efforts to assert its international influence. Despite its status as the bloc’s fourth-largest economy, Spain has traditionally played a relatively passive role in EU and global affairs. Yet this has changed, notably under the leadership of Sánchez. A revealing example of Spain’s more energetic approach was this January’s Treaty of Barcelona, which solidified the Franco-Spanish axis as a driving European political force—on full display this week in China. On the EU level, the Sánchez government has pushed for numerous key bloc-wide policies such as electricity market reform, finalization of a new asylum and migration pact, and enhanced partnerships with Latin America and Africa. As Madrid takes over the Presidency of the Council of the EU in July, it will have a golden opportunity to cement its place within the constellation of major EU players alongside Berlin, Paris, Rome, and Warsaw. 

Sanchez with premier Li Qiang
Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez and Chinese Premier Li Qiang met in Beijing last week.


Jason C. Moyer, Program Associate, Global Europe Program at the Wilson Center

The European Union has been stepping up as a security actor following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, adding a hard power element to its portfolio for the first time. The 27-nation bloc will continue to test its mettle as European Commission President von der Leyen and French President Emmanuel Macron visit Chinese President Xi Jinping. Macron announced his intention of traveling to China with von der Leyen to urge peace in Ukraine amidst concerns China may begin providing arms to Russia. China remains a major obstacle to a lasting peace due to its unwillingness to outright condemn the conflict, its lackluster attempt earlier this year to suggest a peace plan that was widely rebuked, and its assertions there are ‘no-limits’ in China’s friendship with Russia. It will be a tough sell for Macron and von der Leyen to dissuade Xi from supporting Putin, but the economic and political clout of the EU and its unwavering support of Ukraine, including through security means, might be enough to chip away at China’s support for Russia.

This visit comes hot on the heels of a major breakthrough in EU arms support for Ukraine. On March 20, the EU announced the “historic decision” to deliver one million rounds of artillery ammunition to Ukraine within the year. Per the fast-tracked deal, the European Union will not only encourage member states to share ammunition from its own stockpiles but also encourage procurement of new munitions as a collective unit. This is the first time the European Union, with its roots as a post-World War II peace project, will purchase ammunition for a country at war. Macron and von der Leyen can further deliver on this historic announcement of arms support for Ukraine by dissuading Xi from providing arms for a flagging Russia, thereby increasing international support for Ukraine and demonstrating the European Union’s potential as not only a security provider, economic powerhouse, and a soft power negotiator, but as a great power on equal footing with the United States, China, and Russia.   

Robin S. Quinville, Director, Global Europe Program at the Wilson Center

This week’s visit to China by EU Commission President von der Leyen and French President Macron is high-profile but not stand-alone. It follows several months of European engagement. In February, China’s Foreign Minister previewed his country’s Ukraine peace plan at the Munich Security Conference; he then traveled to Paris, Rome and Budapest before heading to Moscow. Spanish Prime Minister Sánchez headed to Beijing on March 31 in preparation for Spain taking on the Presidency of the EU Council in July. 

The vibe is different now than when German Chancellor Olaf Scholz went to Beijing in November – making a strictly bilateral visit instead of the French-German trip Macron preferred. Scholz’s delegation of German business leaders reminded many of the 12 trade-focused visits made by his predecessor, Angela Merkel, and sparked controversy within his coalition government. Pushing back, his team pointed to Xi’s statement opposing the use (or threat) of nuclear weapons as a concrete deliverable from the Scholz trip.

On March 30, von der Leyen framed her visit in terms of both economic prosperity and national security. She was blunt: it is not in Europe’s interest to “decouple” from China. But she stressed the need for “de-risking,” both diplomatically and economically. A German politician, von der Leyen knows the concerns European businesses have about losing their China links. Nevertheless, she argued that the 2020 EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) needed reassessment in light of changes over the past three years. 

This week’s visit will be judged on the messages it delivers – on Ukraine, on trade, and on European values. It will be the first test of the EU’s de-risking strategy. 

President Xi Jinping speaks to French and German leaders
In March 2022, China's President Xi Jinping had a virtual summit with French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz.

Keith M. Rockwell, Global Fellow, Wilson Center

The visit to Beijing this week (April 4) by French President Emmanuel Macron and European Union Commission President Ursula von der Leyen will lay bare the stark choices facing Europe in its dealings with its largest trading partner.

While European unity in the face of Russia’s brutal war in Ukraine has been impressive, there is far less unity on the question of China. To be sure, Europeans are furious with Chinese President Xi Jinping for his tacit support for Vladimir Putin. Xi’s 12-point paper for a “political settlement” to the 13 month conflict has gone down badly across the continent.

In a speech last week in Brussels, Ms. von der Leyen delivered a firm message to President Xi:

“We have to be frank on this point. How China continues to interact with Putin's war will be a determining factor for EU-China relations going forward, “ she said. She cited Chinese aggression in the South China Sea, human rights abuses against Uighurs in Xinjiang, suppression of democracy in Hong Kong and its saber rattling over Taiwan as contributing to the souring of the relationship.  

The European Union is China’s largest trading partner in terms of imports and European investment has been a major driver in job creation and technology transfer. Xi had embarked on a carefully choreographed charm offensive to win European hearts and minds. But his embrace of Putin has put paid to that.

The relationship is an important one for Xi, but the significance of the bilateral relationship cuts two ways and many in Europe worry about antagonizing the world’s second largest economy. Very few in Europe endorse economic decoupling.

“We need to focus on de-risk – not decouple, “said Ms. von der Leyen last week.

The anxiety runs particularly high in her native Germany. For the seventh consecutive year, more than one million German jobs are linked to trade with China. Germany has resisted restrictions on investment to and from China. Unlike France which has taken a hard line on the participation of Huawei in the country’s 5G telecommunications network, 59% of the equipment in Germany’s network is Chinese made.

European companies and politicians have largely avoided US strong arm tactics pertaining to exports of semiconductors and the transfer of technology. But this is largely because there are so few cutting-edge EU producers in the tech sectors. Only one such company, ASML, the Dutch manufacturer of photolithography machines used to produce semiconductors, has succumbed to US pressure to halt the transfer of technology to China.

The fact that European leaders are going to Beijing is a positive development. But given the vast ideological chasm separating Europe from China on issues like Russia, human rights and economic stewardship, it would be wise to keep expectations low. 

Rui Zhong, Program Associate, Kissinger Institute on China and the United States at the Wilson Center

Europe and Chinese officials have been in a diplomatic holding pattern and something of an identity crisis. Neither appear to be fulfilled by the economy-only partnerships of an idealized past. Also unappealing is the increasingly competitive, influence-charged competition of the Sino-American relationship.

In the aftermath of her speech, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen identified a Chinese state goal of making a “systemic change of the international order with China at its center.” Still, she made an effort to distinguish “de-risking” the relationship over “decoupling.” 

Fu Cong, the Chinese ambassador posted to the EU, was quick to cite the United States as a warning. Like many of his colleagues within a foreign ministry newly headed by Foreign Minister Qin Gang, he perceives hawkish economic policy as part and parcel of a broadened definition of security risk. The growing message from Beijing to the West is this: to separate semiconductors or other sensitive technologies is to create a security problem for China.

The unspoken but present risk of “de-risking” or “decoupling” is that economic policies come at a steep cost to non-state actors and to third-party states. Under globalization, sudden and sharp import and export changes can be difficult to digest for consumers, supply chains and subsequently the political taste for competition with China. Chinese officials cannot decouple every instance it is slighted. Thus, the Europe-China relationship must wait and see what degrees of economic and political pressure respective sides are willing to endure.

Global Europe Program

The Global Europe Program is focused on Europe’s capabilities, and how it engages on critical global issues.  We investigate European approaches to critical global issues. We examine Europe’s relations with Russia and Eurasia, China and the Indo-Pacific, the Middle East and Africa. Our initiatives include “Ukraine in Europe” – an examination of what it will take to make Ukraine’s European future a reality.  But we also examine the role of NATO, the European Union and the OSCE, Europe’s energy security, transatlantic trade disputes, and challenges to democracy. The Global Europe Program’s staff, scholars-in-residence, and Global Fellows participate in seminars, policy study groups, and international conferences to provide analytical recommendations to policy makers and the media.  Read more

Kissinger Institute on China and the United States

The Kissinger Institute works to ensure that China policy serves American long-term interests and is founded in understanding of historical and cultural factors in bilateral relations and in accurate assessment of the aspirations of China’s government and people.  Read more

Wahba Institute for Strategic Competition

The Wahba Institute for Strategic Competition works to shape conversations and inspire meaningful action to strengthen technology, trade, infrastructure, and energy as part of American economic and global leadership that benefits the nation and the world.  Read more