For a man who consistently churns out stupid comments, Emmanuel Macron is not a complete idiot. He understands that limitations of range or geography no longer apply in the interconnected 21st-century world, where international threats cannot be compartmentalised by region. Taiwanese semiconductors and Pacific trade passages – and their potential disruption or denial – are just as important to Europe as they are to Japan, Australia, India and the US.
Yet this reality, and Mr Macron’s knowledge of it, has not stopped the French president from reportedly seeking to block the implementation of a Nato office in Tokyo – the alliance’s first outpost in the Indo-Pacific – on the basis that it is geographically far-flung.
Of course, this pathetic justification would not be the real reason for his objection. Rather, it’d be about two matters of pure self-interest. First, Macron hopes to avoid anything that might increase tensions with Beijing, especially after his attempts to cosy up to Xi Jinping in the interests of French business. This has led the French to distance themselves from American efforts to decouple from China. And it is why, after his recent visit to Beijing, Macron suggested Europe should recoil from the dispute over Taiwan to avoid becoming an American “vassal”.
This aversion to the US leads to the second point of self-interest: Macron wants to lead a Europe strategically autonomous from America and “brain dead” Nato, albeit while remaining unable to pick up the price tag that would entail. It beggars belief that he should continue with this unrealistic obsession, driven as it is by hubris rather than realpolitik, even as the fact of European dependency on Washington has yet again been driven home by the war in Ukraine.
For some, it will be difficult not to suspect one more, even more parochial motivation for Macron’s position. He is still smarting from France’s exclusion from Aukus and the loss of its diesel powered submarine deal with Australia in favour of British-American nuclear submarines. Paris’s intemperate reaction to that perceived slight, including the recall of its ambassador in Canberra, revealed a similar attitude to what we may be seeing now: commercial and national pride trumping strategic common sense. To make matters worse in Macron’s eyes, it looks likely that Japan may soon join Aukus.
Opening a Nato office in Japan does not amount to membership of the alliance; it is a means of increasing liaison and solidifying mutual cooperation, both so important in the face of growing Chinese belligerence across the region, especially towards Taiwan and the South and East China Seas. It also sends an important message to Xi Jinping, who understands that political deterrence (a demonstration of will) is at least as important as military deterrence (a demonstration of capability).
In that context, a previous French refusal to cooperate with Nato is instructive. In 2008, Paris rejected a US-backed proposal to put Ukraine on the path to membership of the alliance. Had the process gone ahead it may be that Putin would not have started his war with Ukraine in 2014 or launched a full-scale invasion last year.
The French position then was presumably taken out of fear of angering Russia; and was just as misguided as Macron’s apparent fear now of angering China. Appeasement will not work with Xi today any more than it did with Putin back then.
Nevertheless, Macron will get some plaudits from Beijing, as he already has. On Monday, Wang Yi, director of the Chinese Communist Party Foreign Affairs Commission, waxed lyrical about Macron’s trip to Beijing and the “strategic consensus” between the two countries. He also suggested France and China had coordinated their respective positions over Ukraine. Let us hope this was no more than a diplomatic nicety, because everybody knows that China’s position on any peace deal will only ever be tilted towards Putin’s terms.
Nato’s more responsible leaders should remind Mr Macron that China sees matters through a cynical lense. Its actions are weakening the liberal international order from which every Western democracy, including France, benefits. It would be impossible to suppress Putin if he empowers Xi Jinping – the two work together, and they must be challenged together.