France’s inconsistent Chinese policy confuses partners

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Author: Françoise Nicolas, IfriOn July 21, 2020, the French Minister of Economy and Finance, Bruno Le Maire, participated remotely in the high-level economic and financial dialogue with Chinese Vice Premier Hu Chunhua. The two sides agreed to “encourage businesses in each country to participate in the creation of 5G networks in accordance with market and security principles.”

French President Emmanuel Macron speaks during a joint press conference with Chinese President Xi Jinping (not shown) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China on November 6, 2019 (Photo: Reuters / Jason Lee).

It appears that the French market is planning to remain open to Huawei. The head of the French National Cybersecurity Agency Guillaume Poupard said this when he confirmed the next day that there would be no general ban on Huawei equipment on the French 5G network.

But the devil is in the details. Authorizations for suppliers to use Huawei equipment for 5G are granted for a period of three to eight years, with no guarantee of renewal. Since a new mobile technology like 5G takes at least eight years to generate a return on investment, no vendor would take the gamble. In other words, France imposes a de facto Huawei ban. National security considerations undoubtedly explain this choice – Poupard acknowledged that the risk is not the same with European suppliers like Nokia and Ericsson.

This means that French networks will be freed from Huawei equipment by 2028 at the latest. The French approach contrasts sharply with that of the United Kingdom, which outright banned new Huawei 5G equipment on July 14 with great fanfare and ordered the removal of the existing Huawei 5G kit from carrier networks by 2027.

Huawei’s example can be seen as a testament to French President Emmanuel Macron’s belief that actions speak louder than words. Earlier this year, he said now is the time to behave less naively and stop China from imposing its will, and he intends to speak softly and act firmly.

The French government is fully aware that it cannot afford to thwart bilateral relations. Cooperation is necessary to respond effectively to major global issues of importance to France, such as the Paris Agreement, but it also wishes to defend other interests and values. As a result, there has been a constant oscillation over the past two years between conciliatory tones and firm positions in defense of the national interest and the economic security of France.

Despite few statements, France firmly defends the principle of freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, where the French navy conducts regular exercises, and in the Taiwan Strait, through which a French warship passed in April. 2019, much to Beijing’s dismay. And if France reaffirms its adherence to the “one China policy”, it has not hesitated to reject Chinese warnings concerning the sale of arms to Taiwan in July.

This ambivalence can be interpreted as another example of the at the same time (“And at the same time”) doctrine which has become Macron’s trademark. During the 2017 presidential campaign, Macron was teased as a candidate for ‘at the same time‘, his favorite line in debates and interviews, suggesting that contradictory points of view could be conveyed simultaneously.

While some may praise this ambivalence vis-à-vis China as strategic, this interpretation is questionable at best. There are obviously limits to the at the same time doctrine in this context.

The first catch is that this strategy is applied inconsistently. In August, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi embarked on a major European tour. Despite the unequal rank, Macron has been publicly shown to be all smiles and elbows with Wang, while several of his European counterparts – German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and others – have refused to meet with him. . While purely symbolic, it also stood out from the harsher stance supposedly taken by the French government.

Issues as unpleasant as Hong Kong’s national security law and the plight of the Uyghurs may of course have been discussed behind closed doors, as the statement released by the Quai d’Orsay after the visit suggests. Yet the occasion sent a confused signal, easily interpreted in China as a display of diplomatic enthusiasm.

This ambivalent approach hides a lack of clarity – even coherence – in France’s Chinese policy. France seems to be pursuing ill-defined and sometimes contradictory objectives, probably reflecting changing or divergent priorities set by different ministries. Security and economic objectives do not appear to be fully aligned.

Ambivalence is only a step away from ambiguity, and what may pass for a creative compromise at home represents a vague message abroad. Delivering unclear messages is risky with China, usually quick to get a message across to itself.

More importantly, France’s strategy confuses its European partners. The lack of clarity makes it difficult for them to understand France’s intentions and objectives. While Macron calls on the European Union to show a united front and speak with one voice on China, his fuzzy behavior does not pave the way for a European consensus. Paris’ unique approach to Wang’s visit, which puzzles other European capitals, is a good example. The Europeanization of France’s Chinese strategy, a controversial principle of Macron’s policy, will be difficult to achieve in these circumstances.

Despite all its merits, there are undeniable limits to at the same time doctrine. It is not clear that France has ended a period of “naivety” vis-à-vis China. Strategic ambivalence does not seem to innovate.

Françoise Nicolas is Senior Research Fellow and Director of the Center for Asian Studies at the French Institute of International Relations (Ifri), Paris.

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