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Macron In China, Tsai In California: Why Europe Must Face The Taiwan Question

The issue of Taiwan has come up during French President Emmanuel Macron's visit to China. The unresolved question of the island's independence shows Europe will find it hard to remain neutral as tensions between the U.S. and China reach a new peak.

Photo of the President of Taiwan, Tsai Ing-wen the Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives, Kevin McCarthy

President of Taiwan, Tsai Ing-wen the Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives, Kevin McCarthy during her trip to the U.S.

Pierre Haski


BEIJING — If an example was needed of the escalation of Chinese-American rivalry, the visit to the United States by the President of Taiwan, Tsai Ing-wen, would be enough. This visit, and especially her meeting Wednesday in California with the Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives, Kevin McCarthy, are like a red rag to the leaders of Beijing, who promise "retaliation."

This new boiling point — yet one more — is shaking up the delicate balance of the visit to China by French President Emmanuel Macron, joined Thursday by European Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen. European leaders hope to redefine the China-Europe relationship by side-stepping the new Sino-American Cold War— but, as Emmanuel Macron himself admits, this path is very narrow.

France and "One China"

Visiting Beijing, the French President defended the possibility that Europe would not be drawn into the stand-off that is gradually being established between Beijing and Washington.

This is where Taiwan makes the equation more complex. Emmanuel Macron would have preferred not to have to talk about Taiwan: "I can only deal with what depends on me," he told journalists accompanying him. He is not in a hurry to send a minister to Taipei as the Germans have just done.

But the radicalization of the confrontation over the fate of the island separated from China since 1945 makes neutrality difficult. France adheres to the logic of "one China," the official doctrine that denies any legal existence to Taiwan, but can it ignore the 24 million Taiwanese who have forged a democracy and do not want to lose it in a forced reunification?

Photo of French president Emmanuel Macron arriving in BeijingChina, The West And Macron's "Third Way" For Cooling Global Tensions Liu Bin/Xinhua via ZUMA Press

The hard thing about remaining neutral

Chinese leaders make a point of reminding their visitors of the "one China" policy to which they have adhered. This is what will happen today in talks with China's number one, Xi Jinping.

They can stick to that if China moderates its reaction to the visit of the Taiwanese president while European leaders are in Beijing. The Foreign Ministry has certainly issued a tough statement denouncing the American "provocation," and naval maneuvers have begun around Taiwan. But this is nothing on the scale of what happened last August during Nancy Pelosi's visit to Taipei.

However, China watchers point out that Beijing's reaction may simply be delayed. The promised "retaliation" will come later.

That leaves Emmanuel Macron and Ursula Von der Leyen trying to get China's number one to make progress on Ukraine, perhaps a promise to speak to President Zelensky. But probably not much more: yesterday, the prime ministers of Russia and China spoke, proclaiming that Chinese-Russian relations have never been better.

It is difficult to escape the logic of the blocs taking shape. Europe is right to try, but despite the efforts, the opposition is strong.

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