This article originally appeared in the Globe and Mail.
By J. Michael Cole, April 14, 2023
The fates of Ukraine and Taiwan are linked, and the outcome of authoritarian encroachment on these two democracies will define the geopolitical balance of power for decades to come.
It was therefore with some trepidation that the democratic camp last week watched as French President Emmanuel Macron was given the red-carpet treatment on his visit to China, replete with parades and a state banquet with President Xi Jinping. Mr. Macron, accompanied by some of his close advisers, was seeking Beijing’s assistance to bring the devastating war in Ukraine to an end.
There was nothing fundamentally wrong with Mr. Macron entering into communication with China while seeking potential solutions. After all, earlier this year Mr. Xi unveiled a “12-point plan” to end Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine. In fact, just as Mr. Macron and Mr. Xi were about to meet, across the ocean another president – Taiwan’s Tsai Ing-wen – was meeting with the U.S. Speaker of the House, Kevin McCarthy. When asked by reporters, Mr. McCarthy rejoined that he saw no problem with Mr. Macron meeting with Mr. Xi. In times of escalating geopolitical tensions, what is needed is more, not less, dialogue among world leaders – friends and foes alike.
The main problem with the French President’s gambit is that he showed up in person, mere weeks after Mr. Xi had journeyed to Moscow to meet with the key architect of Russia’s war of aggression. To this day, Mr. Xi has yet to condemn Vladimir Putin’s assault on the free world and the tens of thousands of innocent men, women and children who have fallen victim to this act of barbarity.
That Mr. Macron would choose to speak with Mr. Xi was an act that is perfectly in line with what heads of state should do. Mr. Macron’s main mistake was to travel to Beijing, where he was given a highly choreographed hero’s welcome replete with military displays at Tiananmen Square.
A telephone call would have sufficed. In fact, it would have been advisable for him to limit his communication to such a medium to avoid falling into the trap that Beijing had set for him. By embarking on a state visit, Mr. Macron gave Mr. Xi legitimacy that, as a tacit supporter of Mr. Putin’s war in Ukraine, he does not deserve. Moreover, the highly symbolic visit inevitably caused damage to, and raised questions about, transatlantic unity over the war in Ukraine. Beijing, a past master in the game of divide and conquer, was handed a trump card on a gold platter and didn’t miss the occasion to exacerbate divisions, real or perceived, both within Europe and between Europe and the United States.
To add insult to injury, Mr. Macron and his advisers made it clear prior to departing for Beijing that they would not raise the issue of Taiwan with Mr. Xi, another faux pas that raised questions about unity – this time over the future of Taiwan – within the democratic camp. He did so at a time when it should be made clear to the despotic regimes in Beijing and Moscow that, for the democratic world, the issues of Taiwan and Ukraine are non-zero-sum and indivisible.
Wittingly or not, Mr. Macron’s decision to leave out the issue of Taiwan – or rather to cede it to the Chinese side mere hours before Beijing launched another round of major military exercises targeting the island country – created the impression that the French government was willing to play down the significance of Taiwan’s future for the sake of securing Beijing’s involvement in Europe. French government officials are now backpedalling and seeking to reaffirm France’s commitment to Taiwan but the damage, sadly, has been done.
Diplomacy is an art, one that must be practised with form and context in mind. The intent and motives behind Mr. Xi’s “peace” plan for Ukraine may be questionable, but there is nothing fundamentally wrong with world leaders exploring its potential as a means to put an end to this senseless war in Europe. Where Mr. Macron failed, however, was in the form and timing of his visit – by giving the leader of an increasingly repressive government and complicit actor in the war in Ukraine legitimacy that he simply did not deserve.
Whether this was mere naiveté on the part of Mr. Macron and his advisers, or something more tenebrous, remains to be seen. Regardless, a wound has been left on transatlantic and transpacific unity and must now be healed before the tyrants find new ways to widen their wedge.
J. Michael Cole is a Taipei-based senior fellow with the Macdonald-Laurier Institute.