Nothing better illustrates the growing irrelevance in world affairs of some of Europe’s most prominent leaders than the sight of Emmanuel Macron, the French president, and Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Union, effectively prostrating themselves before Xi Jinping, China’s all-powerful leader.
At a moment when Western democracy faces an existential threat from the expanding power of autocratic regimes, its leaders should be pooling their resources to defend themselves, not indulging in obsequious behaviour towards hostile states.
Xi’s China makes no secret of its ambition to become the world’s dominant power, from its attempts to replace the dollar as the leading currency to its massive investment in the Chinese military with the explicit aim, as Xi himself declared last year, of “fighting and winning” wars by the middle of the century. Together with Russia, Iran and North Korea, China is fundamentally opposed to the freedom and liberal values that underpin Western democratic government, as is evident from its brutal suppression of democracy in Hong Kong and its aggressive stance towards Taiwan.
If the West is to withstand the generational challenge posed by autocracies, it needs to display strength and resolve. Instead, we have the decidedly unimpressive sight of Macron and von der Leyen making a joint visit to Beijing, apparently in the vain hope that they might be able to enlist Xi’s support in ending the war in Ukraine and develop a more constructive relationship with the West.
Some hope. It was only last month that Xi reaffirmed his deepening alliance with Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin. The two leaders, while notionally declaring their support for peace talks, insisted that Nato, not Russia, was ultimately responsible for provoking the Ukraine conflict.
At the same time, there is mounting evidence – gleaned from analysis of customs data by American investigators – that Beijing is supplying weapons to Russia to support its war effort against Ukraine.
And yet Macron has chosen this moment to lead a delegation of French businessmen on a tour of China’s regional capitals, apparently in the hope of expanding profitable trade ties with Beijing. Even more embarrassing is the fact that von der Leyen, who is supposed to represent Europe’s largest trading bloc, has been reduced to playing second fiddle to the French president, who took the liberty of arranging the visit on her behalf.
Macron’s shameful decision to abandon the cause of European unity in pursuit of improved French trade ties with Beijing will surprise no one given his conduct since the Ukraine crisis began. Rather than standing firm against Russian aggression, the French leader broke ranks by launching his own diplomatic initiative to negotiate a peace deal with Putin, which achieved nothing.
Von der Leyen’s presence in Beijing is even more problematic because it runs the risk of undermining the EU’s official policy of denouncing Russian aggression in Ukraine, a policy that carries less weight if the EU president is also intent on forging closer ties with Beijing, Russia’s main backer. Von der Leyen’s confused approach certainly raises questions about her suitability to become Nato’s next secretary general, a proposition that is being seriously mooted in some European security circles.
There are, of course, more effective ways of safeguarding the Western alliance than kowtowing to dictators like Xi, as Finland’s accession to the Nato alliance this week has shown.
One of Putin’s main justifications for launching his invasion of Ukraine was that he was acting in response to Nato’s expansion into territory he regards as falling within Moscow’s traditional sphere of influence. Finland, which fought a bitter war against the Soviets at the start of the Second World War, was one such country, having been forced by Moscow to remain neutral during the Cold War.
The fact that Finland, which has an 800-mile border with Russia, has now been welcomed into the Nato fold represents not only a major own goal for the Russian leader, but shows that the cause of European solidarity is still strong, irrespective of the antics of Macron and von der Leyen.
Indeed, rather than indulging in the pointless task of trying to reason with irreconcilable leaders like Xi, Western efforts would be far better spent bolstering ties with friendly states, as Nato is doing with the accession of Finland and, hopefully, Sweden, assuming Stockholm can overcome the objections of Hungary and Turkey.
The establishment of the Aukus defence pact between Britain, the US and Australia, is another encouraging development that shows the West is prepared to defend its interests against the likes of China. As is Britain’s decision to join the Asia-Pacific free trade area, the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). Forging closer trade and security ties with friendly nations is more likely to safeguard our freedoms than pandering to Chinese autocrats.