France’s incoherent China policy confuses partners

Asia Europe World

Author: Françoise Nicolas, Ifri

On 21 July 2020, 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 parties agreed to ‘encourage the businesses of each country to participate in the creation of 5G networks in line with market and security principles’.

French President Emmanuel Macron speaks at a joint news conference with China's President Xi Jinping (not pictured) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China 6 November, 2019 (Photo: Reuters/Jason Lee).

French President Emmanuel Macron speaks at a joint news conference with China's President Xi Jinping (not pictured) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China 6 November, 2019 (Photo: Reuters/Jason Lee).

It seems the French market plans to remain open to Huawei. The head of the French National Cybersecurity Agency Guillaume Poupard said as much when he confirmed the next day that there would be no blanket ban on Huawei equipment in the French 5G network.

But the devil is in the details. Authorisations for vendors to use Huawei equipment for 5G are granted for between three and eight years, without guarantee of renewal. As new mobile technology like 5G takes at least eight years to yield return on investment, no vendor would take the gamble. In other words, France is imposing a de facto ban on Huawei. National security considerations no doubt account for this choice — Poupard acknowledged the risk is not the same with European suppliers like Nokia and Ericsson.

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

The Huawei example can be seen as a testament of French President Emmanuel Macron’s conviction that actions speak louder than words. Earlier this year he declared that the time had come to behave less naively and to stop China from imposing its will, and he aims to talk softly and act tough.

The French government is fully aware that it cannot afford to antagonise bilateral relations. Cooperation is needed to effectively respond to key global issues of importance to France, such as the Paris Agreement, but it also wants 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 defence of France’s national interest and economic security.

Despite few declarations, France firmly upholds 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 ire. And while France reiterates adherence to the ‘one-China policy’, it did not hesitate to dismiss Chinese warnings about selling arms to Taiwan in July.

This ambivalence can be interpreted as another example of the en même temps (‘and at the same time’) doctrine that has become Macron’s trademark. During the 2017 presidential campaign, Macron was teased as the candidate of ‘en même temps’, his pet phrase in debates and interviews, suggesting that conflicting views could be carried simultaneously.

While some may praise this ambivalence vis-a-vis China as strategic, that interpretation is debatable at best. There are obviously limits to the en même temps doctrine in this context.

The first snag is that this strategy is inconsistently applied. In August Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi embarked on a European grand tour. Despite the mismatch in rank, Macron was shown publicly as all smiles and elbow bumps with Wang, while several of his European counterparts — German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and others — refused to meet him. Although merely symbolic, it also stood apart from the tougher stance supposedly adopted by the French government.

Such unpleasant issues as Hong Kong’s National Security Law and the fate of the Uighurs may of course have been discussed behind closed doors, as suggested by the communique issued by the Quai d’Orsay after the visit. Still, the occasion sent a confused signal, easily interpreted in China as a show of diplomatic enthusiasm.

This ambivalent approach hides a lack of clarity — and even coherence — in France’s China policy. France appears to pursue ill-defined and sometimes contradictory objectives, probably reflecting shifting or diverging priorities set by different ministries. Security and economic objectives do not seem to be fully aligned.

Ambivalence is just one step away from ambiguity, and what may pass for creative compromise at home represents a blurred message abroad. Delivering unclear messages is risky with China, usually quick at spinning a message to its own.

More importantly, France’s strategy confuses its European partners. The lack of clarity does not make it easy for them to fathom France’s intentions and objectives. While Macron calls for the European Union to show a united front and speak with one voice on China, his fuzzy behaviour does not pave the way for a European consensus. Paris’s unique approach to Wang’s visit, perplexing to the other European capitals, is a case in point. The Europeanisation of France’s China strategy, a contentious tenet of Macron’s policy, will be difficult to achieve under these circumstances.

For all its merits, there are unmistakable limits to the en même temps doctrine. It is not evident that France has put an end to a period of ‘naivety’ vis-a-vis China. Strategic ambivalence does not appear to be breaking any ground.

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