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France’s new president will need China’s cooperation on issues like climate change to balance the US and Russia. But while Macron might open up new channels for Sino-European cooperation, he could also push Europe towards a tougher stance on trade and security issues.

Flags of France and China

France’s new president Emmanuel Macron is clearly on a winning streak – at home and abroad. His domestic mandate was boosted by the victory of his freshly created movement-party La République en Marche in Sunday's first parliamentary election round. And he wowed European and international audiences by standing up to US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. But Macron’s success in counterbalancing both Russia and the United States will depend on his ability to work with China and on his effectiveness in shaping European China policy.

Proposing an “axis of universal solidarity” with China

With his deft reaction to the US retreat from the Paris Agreement on climate change, the new French leader placed himself at the forefront of a liberal anti-Trump, pro-climate alliance. The new French environment minister Nicolas Hulot also stressed the need to save the Paris Agreement and reflected publicly upon the formation of a new “axis of universal solidarity” led by Europe and China. French foreign policy circles are even discussing a strategic “Entente Cordiale” between Europe (notably Paris and Berlin) and China vis-à-vis Trump and Putin.

But these geopolitical musings will soon face serious reality checks. Tying his international credibility so closely to the Paris Agreement was a risky step for Macron. Whether the international pact can be saved from irrelevance will crucially depend on Europe’s ability to step up climate cooperation with China and on China’s willingness to make genuine commitments.

Macron will also have to navigate carefully when it comes to trade relations with China. French voters did not choose the protectionism heralded by far-right candidate Marine Le Pen. But even the internationalist Macron promised to build a “Europe that protects Europeans.” Macron’s campaign platform  includes several ambitious EU-level projects that could create friction with China. His proposed “Buy European Act” would force bidders in public tenders to localize at least half of their production in Europe. Macron’s agenda also features control mechanisms for foreign investments in strategic industries that go far beyond the current EU consensus on how to deal with unfair competition.

Public pressure is already forming on Macron to deliver on his election promises. An editorial in Le Monde called on the new government to push for a “less naïve Europe” in global trade. And many on the left and right view China as the main threat.

Standing up to China in South East Asia

International security is another area of potential frictions between France and China as members of the incoming French government have already asserted their country’s strategic interests in South East Asia and their willingness to stand up to China in the region. Macron’s new foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian had already suggested deploying EU maritime patrols in the South China Sea last year. Addressing the 2017 Shangri-La Dialogue’s Plenary Session in Singapore on June 3, France’s new Minister of the Armed Forces Sylvie Goulard sent a thinly veiled warning to China when she linked the deployment of French naval vessels to the defense of “international law” against “unilateralism” in the region. With Britain leaving the EU, France remains the only member state that could potentially play a strategic role in South East Asia due to its military presence and colonial legacy.

But France can hardly play a relevant geopolitical role without German and European backing, which is why Macron’s “Europe that protects us” (“Une Europe qui nous protège”) also includes decisive steps towards a European Defense Union. Rallying support behind French-led maneuvers in the region could become an integral part of this project. And this could mean that other EU member states will be pushed towards a more assertive stance vis-à-vis China.

As soon as Macron gets bogged down in the inevitable domestic policy wrangles over reforming the French labor market, he will need to show some successes at European and international level. Many in the EU are placing great hopes in the new French President. But as in other policy fields, the crucial question remains whether other European leaders are willing to change gear and support an ambitious French agenda to turn Europe into a more decisive and self-confident international actor – who, if necessary, stands up to China on  issues of strategic interest.