The Great Wall of China dividing Biden and Macron

The world is not divided between “democracies and autocracies”. Washington’s approach to China is dangerously confrontational. The Ukraine conflict is about getting Russia to the negotiating table. Unilateral sanctions are not legitimate. The United States starts a trade war against Europe. NATO must stop opposing European defence.

To say that France disagrees with the US on most issues would be a serious understatement. But during last week’s high-profile state visit by French President Emmanuel Macron to “his friend Joe” in Washington, both partners put on a great act and gave the impression that they were living in the land of milk and honey.

President Biden deserves credit for pulling out all the stops. He arranged for “his friend Emmanuel” the first state visit of his presidency, a special honor for France. Amid much pomp and circumstance, we were carefully treated to long displays of camaraderie between the two leaders, including lavish backslapping and a friendly D.C. dinner with their husbands.

In a joint press conference, Biden even seemed to have made an effort to curb his notorious tendency to ramble on in consideration of Macron’s time in the spotlight.

There were also a few meatier bits for French diplomats to take home as proof that they had taken the line of being “allied but non-aligned” with the US, and that they had pushed Washington in the right direction. Biden stated he would be willing to meet with Vladimir Putin to end the conflict in Ukraine, a reversal of his previous stance and a nod to Macron’s efforts to keep diplomatic channels open with the Russian leader. The White House has since signaled that the conditions were “not yet at a point” for such a meeting to take place.

The US president pledged to look at what he called “glitches” in his signature multi-billion Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which is significantly hurting the European electric car industry through “buy American” restrictions and massive state subsidies to US companies. A day earlier, the French president had denounced the package as “super aggressive” and risking nothing less than “fragmentation of the West”.

Their joint communiqué painstakingly listed the two countries’ shared positions on everything from Ukraine and Europe’s security to Iran, the Middle East, climate change, “the importance of African voices in multilateral fora” and a commitment to global financial enhance architecture.

But there was one notable omission: how to deal with China, which Biden has identified as the biggest threat to American interests and security.

“China represents the most consistent challenge to the world order and the United States must win the economic arms race with the superpower if it hopes to maintain its global influence,” states the current US National Security Strategy. If that is indeed the case, surely it should appear in a statement intended to demonstrate the proximity between Washington and Paris?

Except that the two countries’ approaches couldn’t be further apart.

While the joint communiqué mentions “China’s challenge to the rules-based international order”, it only says that the two countries have pledged to “coordinate their concerns” – an indirect admission that they are currently anything but coordinated. This shouldn’t come as a surprise.

Paris has always been deeply suspicious of the Biden doctrine that fundamentally defines the current era as “a struggle between democracies and autocracies.” Seen from France, this black and white framework was seen as overly ideological, geopolitically inapplicable and transparently selfish. “Many people would like to see two orders in this world,” Macron stated during a trip to the G20 in Indonesia last November. “This is a big mistake, even for both the US and China. We need one global order.”

It’s no secret that France and several other European countries are less than enthralled by what they see as Washington’s overly aggressive stance on China, including escalating rhetoric about a potential conflict in the Taiwan Strait.

It is not that France has any illusions about the inevitability of the rivalry between the world’s two largest economies, or about China’s hegemonic moves in the Indo-Pacific in recent years. But Paris believes that differences should be managed within the existing multilateral framework and aimed at reducing, not increasing, tensions.

At the G20 summit, the French president stressed that China has clearly distanced itself from Russia over time and could play an important mediating role in the conflict in Ukraine. He also stressed Beijing’s attachment to the existing world order and that President Xi Jinping shared his commitment to the United Nations – a transparent rebuke of the US position that systematically portrays Beijing as a revisionist power bent on ousting the West.

The next day in Bangkok, Macron’s comments were even sharper: “We are in the jungle and we have two big elephants that are trying to get more and more nervous,” he told the audience. “If they get really nervous and start a war, it’s going to be a big problem for the rest of the jungle.”

France has long been a proponent of a multipolar order in which great powers balance each other and agree to play by common rules. This fits both with the traditional Gallic diffidence towards American hegemony and with France’s self-image as a “middle power with global influence”, in the famous expression of Hubert Védrine, a former foreign minister. “We don’t believe in hegemony, we don’t believe in confrontation, we believe in stability,” Macron had told his Asian audience last month.

It may have sounded selfish to Washington, but the reality is that for most of the world this is a much preferable alternative to another cold war between two economic and military hegemons.

The public show of bonhomie between Biden and Macron cannot hide those deeper tensions. Their teams hailed the French president’s visit to Washington as a success. But in addressing the biggest risk factor in international relations – the possibility of escalation between the US and China – the results have been of a much more modest kind: the big no-good.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial view of Al Jazeera.

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Merry C. Vega is a highly respected and accomplished news author. She began her career as a journalist, covering local news for a small-town newspaper. She quickly gained a reputation for her thorough reporting and ability to uncover the truth.

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