HONG KONG — Mocked by concerned observers from Washington to Brussels, French President Emmanuel Macron’s recent trip to China did not go down well with allies. But he left his hosts with a sense of joy.
Hundreds of cheering people waited to greet Macron when he arrived in the southern Chinese metropolis of Guangzhou this month as part of a high-profile state visit.
“He saw us and came right up to us and shook our hands, who were in the front row,” said Qiao Jiabao, a financial journalism student at Sun Yat-sen University, where Macron delivered a speech. “I felt he was very kind and proactive even though we didn’t speak the same language,” Qiao told NBC News.
He said he and his friends joked that Macron, who was facing mass protests in France over his unpopular plan to raise the retirement age, had been treated so well in China that he might not want to go home.
Macron had just returned to France when he faced another storm of criticism, this time over an interview in which he suggested Europe should resist being drawn into a conflict over Taiwan and insist on “strategic autonomy”. which is independent of both the United States and China.
His comments sparked an angry backlash, raising concerns that Beijing might manage to sow divisions between the US and its allies as part of its quest for a world where America must compete with several other powers for supremacy.
But they were celebrated in China, where the state-backed nationalist tabloid Global Times said they signaled “an impasse for US strategy to get Europe to contain China.” Lu Shaye, the Chinese Ambassador to France, called Tuesday that Macron “spoke great truths” in the tradition of French independence.
“President Macron’s statements have had a strong international echo,” he said on Twitter.
The status of Taiwan, a self-governing democracy that claims Beijing as its territory, is the biggest flash point in US-China relations, and Macron’s comments were made public as China, in response to House Speaker Kevin, launched military drills with sharp Munitions near the island conducted McCarthy’s meetings in California with Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen.
“The worst thing would be to think that we Europeans should catch up on this issue and adapt to the American rhythm and a Chinese overreaction,” Macron told Politico and French newspaper Les Échos as he flew back from China. “Why should we choose the pace that others have chosen?”
Macron later clarified that France’s Taiwan policy – recognizing Beijing as China’s sole legitimate government while maintaining unofficial ties with Taipei, the same policy as the US – has not changed. But he also defended his earlier statements, saying Europe has the right to act independently.
Being an ally “doesn’t mean being a vassal,” he said at a press conference in Amsterdam last week.
The White House has downplayed Macron’s comments, saying it is “comfortable and confident” in the US alliance with France, but they have been heavily criticized by Republicans for underestimating the threat posed by China.
And Macron’s words were still ringing as foreign ministers from the Group of 7 nations, which includes the United States and France, gathered in Karuizawa, Japan over the weekend. In a joint communiqué released on Tuesday, the diplomats underscored the unity as they said they recognize the importance of “open cooperation” with China, the world’s second-largest economy, while working together on areas of mutual interest.
China’s Foreign Ministry said on Tuesday that the G-7 statement “grossly interfered with China’s internal affairs” and that it protested to Japan, which holds the group’s rotating presidency.
“The communiqué reflects the group’s arrogance, prejudice and conscious desire to block and contain China,” spokesman Wang Wenbin said at a regular news conference.
Macron is among a number of European leaders who have visited Beijing in recent months, including German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez. But Chinese President Xi Jinping paid special attention to the French President and personally traveled with him to Guangzhou.
Macron received a warm welcome not only from Xi but also from the Chinese public, who showered him with praise on social media.
Zhao Qing, who works in retail in east China, said Macron’s visit was a friendly sign and gave a boost to China’s ties with France and other European countries.
“I had a good impression when my wife and I visited France before and maybe I can go there again in the future,” he said.