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Illustration: Victor Sanjinez

Open questions | Can China and France help reinvent the future on trade, Ukraine and Gaza? A former diplomat gives his view

  • Distinguished former French ambassador reflects on the importance of Xi’s Europe visit amid mounting global tensions
Maurice Gourdault-Montagne was a French diplomat from 1978 until 2019, serving as ambassador to Japan, Britain, Germany and China. He was former president Jacques Chirac’s senior diplomatic adviser and was also President Emmanuel Macron’s special envoy to the UAE. This interview first appeared in SCMP Plus. For other interviews in the Open Questions series, click here.
Could I start by asking for your take on Chinese President Xi Jinping’s recent visit to Europe?

This trip was very important in terms of the tensions we are going through – between the United States and China globally, and a confrontation which is more regional, over the Pacific Ocean, as well as tensions between the European Union and China for various reasons, and tensions because of the geopolitics which are bringing us more fractures and fragmentation of the world.

So it was necessary that this visit took place, and it took place five years after President Xi last came to Europe.
And also in the background, it was an important reminder – and a celebration – of the 60th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between France and China.

The celebrations were not totally coincidental because it was an opportunity to remind us that this [the establishment of ties] took place at a time of high tensions as well. It was the Cold War, it was the Vietnam war. It was just after the end of France’s colonisation of Algeria.

So a new world was coming, and there are some similarities regarding at least some of the tensions which exist [today] on the surface of the globe.

So what are the takeaways of this visit? First of all, there is a link between France and China, which had to be, I would say, utilised. There is trust between the two leaders, since the visit which was paid by President Macron to China in 2018 and 2022, and by President Xi to France in 2019.

We have lots of commonalities and aims regarding, for instance, biodiversity, climate change. These are the issues on which we work a lot and we have tools so we had to underline what is going on, and quite well.

But the thing was, that we had messages to exchange and to try to define the frame of the issues of the difficult stakes we have to overcome at the moment, in particular the trade war which already exists between China and the US, and the US and Europe.
Chinese President Xi Jinping and his wife Peng Liyuan are welcomed by their French counterparts Emmanuel Macron and Brigitte Macron at the Élysée Presidential Palace in Paris on May 6. Photo: AFP

And we must remember that the Biden administration never changed anything from what former president Donald Trump in the previous mandate decided, so the confrontation is there.

As far as China is concerned, we delivered our message in particular regarding overcapacity in electric vehicles, that the EU wants to remain an open market but we cannot absorb more EVs coming from China.

The message was delivered, though the answer by President Xi was not exactly the one we expected. There were positive points, such as his opening remarks, when he mentioned Chinese investments on EU soil, which is something we were longing for.

Globally, this visit did not produce any concrete result because everyone expressed his position, but the most important point is that we each know what the other one has in mind.

What will come out of that is difficult to say because since the visit, the Americans have put more pressure, having quadrupled the tariffs on electric vehicles. That puts the EU under pressure, so we have to manoeuvre in that framework and the margin is very thin to find a solution.

There were some positive points regarding opening by China on agrifood, regarding cosmetics, and regarding prospects on future cooperation on aeronautics. So there are fields where we work together and we expressed our interest for both sides to continue working together. That’s very important.

There is a political will that we must find a way to escape any trade war but the pressure is high on all sides.

There was another takeaway, which was on the Ukraine war. There was an important message in my view, delivered by President Xi, regarding the principles of peaceful coexistence.


Xi welcomes ‘old friend’ Putin to Beijing, affirms strength of China-Russia bond

Xi welcomes ‘old friend’ Putin to Beijing, affirms strength of China-Russia bond

More could be done in that sense, and that is a personal view, because not everyone in France takes into account enough that China has never recognised the annexation of territories by Russia in Ukraine.

In that sense, China – with all the positions it has delivered on Ukraine – is in a position of neutrality which should guide us when the time comes for a ceasefire and peace negotiations if any, of having closer cooperation.

Is Ukraine the area that fell short of expectations on this trip, that there was no progress towards reaching a consensus?

There was no proper concrete result as such, but the thing is that we must see the short term and the longer term. In the short run, we strongly support Ukraine’s sovereignty, and territorial integrity. We have delivered signals to Ukraine that we shall continue to support Ukraine.

In the long term, what kind of security guarantees could be granted to Ukraine? And in that sense, I would say in the longer run there will be understanding between major countries, and in particular the permanent members of the [United Nations] Security Council, as we have with China in particular.

What is important is what was said afterwards by President Xi during President [Vladimir] Putin’s visit to Beijing, which is that what is needed is a political solution.

The question is, what will this political solution be? But in that sense, both China and France consider that the integrity, sovereignty and independence of Ukraine must be supported and guaranteed.

There is still a lot of work to do. There is a lot to work out, but I think that one day we could find a way of working together with China on Ukraine.

Were the divisions in Europe more conspicuous after this visit? Or were they expected?

This is a good question because we must keep in mind that the EU is not one state with one government. It is a voluntary assembly of nations and states which understand each other and define common positions.

The fact that Madam [Ursula] von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, attended the first part of the talks meant that there was EU unity regarding this issue. First, we want to keep our market open and second, we are not ready to absorb everything which comes. That would overflow our own capacities.
Electric vehicles are a major point of contention between Europe and China. Photo: AFP

So the message was yes, we cannot deny there are some differences in approach between countries like France and Germany but let’s keep in mind that France and Germany consulted each other a few days before.

What President Macron said was in accordance with what Chancellor [Olaf] Scholz was thinking. There is something that we share with the Germans and the rest of the EU – we don’t want any commercial war.

Let’s try to find ways and means to lift the differences we have and let’s find a solution and what we can do there.

There are investment possibilities, of Beijing producing Chinese vehicles on European soil. There is also a French company Stellantis which produces EVs, which invested in the company Leapmotor in China.

So let’s be creative and inventive to find the ways and means to not be subjected to pressure by the Americans. We have interests and that is what comes out from this visit by President Xi. EU interests are not US interests. They don’t overlap. So let’s find ways to escape this trade war which is proliferating.

You said in an earlier interview that Europe is becoming more reliant on the US for defence. Do you think European strategic autonomy is a feasible option?

It will be necessary to develop strategic autonomy, more self-reliance. The US is withdrawing on its own. Isolationism is a trend that has already existed in the US and it can erupt again in the times to come. If we look at president [Donald] Trump’s programme, it is America first and the rest is ignored.

So President Macron has defined strategic autonomy for the EU. Yes, there is the field of defence at the moment. Because of the Ukraine war, there was a reinforcement of Nato and it’s true that 23 out of 27 countries in the EU are Nato members.

So in the field of defence, the question will be whether the commitments by the US or Nato will be pursued and so we must think of some European pillar within Nato and we are working on it.

People shelter inside a Kyiv metro station during a Russian military attack on Ukraine. “We strongly support Ukraine’s sovereignty, and territorial integrity,” Maurice Gourdault-Montagne says. Photo: Reuters

The French have a multiannual budgetary programme on defence, the Germans have a special fund on defence, and Poland has decided that there will be 4 per cent of the budget dedicated to defence.

So we are working on a pillar for defence but it will take time. We are in Nato. We shall continue to be in Nato, the question will be what are the commitments of the US.

Strategic autonomy can also be seen in the field of the economy. How can we be more self-reliant on certain products? We have the EU Critical Raw Materials Act, which defines targets of having certain stocks and storage of raw materials.

We identify some possibilities of working with certain countries in the world on certain continents.

There is also digital strategic autonomy. How can we be independent from these major companies in the US regarding the protection of data? Where must the servers be?

So in all these fields the EU has undertaken a programme of being stronger and more self-reliant so that we are not dependent on the decisions made either by the US administration or by the Congress.

Do you see a continuation of US protectionism, whether Trump or Biden is elected in November?

That’s what I think. The Republican camp embodies isolationism. I would say that if we look at the Democrats, the gestures made by President Biden towards the unions in particular, which are very populist, show that their supporters are on the side of protectionism.

And so we must have it in mind. It’s how one understands the commitment of the US on defence, on interventionism in many places, as the US did in the past. I think there is a fatigue in the US and the US population regarding military interventions.


How do France’s ambitions as a global leader figure in China-US relations?

How do France’s ambitions as a global leader figure in China-US relations?
But there is also an issue I would like to stress, which is the Pacific region. There is alignment of both camps, on both sides of the political spectrum in the US, on the Pacific and China.

The only difference that I see is a certain willingness by the Biden administration to keep channels of dialogue open.

If I look at what has been done, at the Apec summit in San Francisco in November regarding communication between the military, if I look at what Secretary of State Antony Blinken is doing – he has been many times to China for discussions with Foreign Minister Wang Yi – and what national security adviser Jake Sullivan also does then yes, there is clearly a willingness by the administration not to cut off the link of dialogue between the US and China.

On the Republican side, I think it would be tougher. That’s the only difference.

In previous interviews you have said that Russia’s concerns about Nato enlargement were ignored in the past and that is why there were missed opportunities to mediate the situation before the Ukraine crisis erupted.

Now that the war has been going on for two years, what role can China play in mediation? And do you agree that there was a U-turn on France’s stance concerning Nato enlargement?

I belong to the ones who think that there were missed opportunities and that there was the possibility of settling this issue of Ukraine much earlier. I am not alone in thinking like that. There are plenty of American strategists who think alike and think that Ukraine is vital to Russia in one way or another.

Even [former US president Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser Zbigniew] Brzezinski said, in his book The Grand Chessboard, that there is no great power of Russia without Ukraine. So there is a vital interest for Russia in Ukraine.

There are countries which have a vocation, because of their location, of being buffer states, not belonging to any camp or another. There was a missed opportunity, when I was with former president Jacques Chirac. We had told the Russians the idea of having protection on Ukraine by Russia on one side and Nato the other side.

French President Emmanuel Macron (left) and Chinese leader Xi Jinping enjoy a drink in a restaurant in the Pyrenees mountains during Xi’s state visit to France in May. Photo: AP

The effect would have been the neutralisation of the Ukraine issue and the Nato-Russia Council, which existed at the time, would have been running the issue so that the neutrality of Ukraine would have been assured.

That time is over. We have this aggression by Russia on the sovereign state of Ukraine. The issue of security remains exactly the same as it was from the beginning. How can we settle the question of security? The security of one is also the security of others. Security is indivisible. And so what can we do?

There are options that France is studying and it is more inclined to the idea, under certain conditions, of Ukraine joining Nato. That was the result of the last Nato summit which took place last year in Vilnius, Lithuania.

There will be another Nato summit in Washington in mid-July. The question will be on the table. The decision has not been made for Ukraine in Nato. There can be some other evolution, there can be some other idea. It is only an option.

The question will be, what kind of guarantees are given to Ukraine? There are some ideas in the US in particular, but also in Europe and in France, that a general convention on security could be convened which would see powers granting their security to Ukraine.

First of all, if we look at the current situation, in the past month there were defence agreements signed between Ukraine and European countries – France, Germany, Italy, Poland. There is a security agreement signed with Canada. There should be at the moment a security agreement, which is under negotiation, between Ukraine and the US.

Can we imagine that there would be a general conference on security which would involve countries that are not in Europe – major countries like China, for instance or India, being part of an agreement guaranteeing the independence of Ukraine?

We must invent something positive and new for the future. The old recipes have not worked so far. And so having Ukraine in Nato is not yet decided. It is an option. We must invent something different.

We must grant security to this independent country, which is Ukraine, independent and sovereign. Under what conditions is another matter. There will be negotiations. There are territories which the Russian army is occupying. This is part of the negotiations.

But the principles exist and we are with China on the same principles of integrity of territory, no use of force, no first use of nuclear weapons. Sovereignty and independence must prevail.

President Xi delivered a message before his visit to France on peaceful coexistence. How can we come back to peaceful coexistence? This is a key issue for the world and Ukraine will be an example for that.

By involving countries that are further away from Europe and friendlier to Russia, do you think that is a way to get Russia to the negotiation table?

I think it’s possible because as I said, security is indivisible. The security of Russia is the security of China and the security of the western part of Europe. So we must find a way in which everyone is committed to each other.

That’s why I am mentioning this possibility, in which major countries who also have a nuclear deterrence are involved, because we cannot afford to have these wars which are disrupting the whole world economy and disrupting prosperity and development.

The interest is to have stability, and stability comes when everyone is committed to each other.

Three European countries have made clear their support for a Palestinian state. Will that lead to a unified European position on a two-state proposal? What are the ways to de-escalate the situation?

This is a key issue which has been discussed for the past 15 years and we know that in the UN there are already more than 140 countries which recognise Palestine as a state.

At the Security Council one month ago, there was a resolution which the US opposed with their veto, but France voted for the recognition of Palestine as a full state by the United Nations.

Palestinians carry salvaged belongings as they leave the Jabalia refugee camp in the northern Gaza Strip amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the militant group Hamas. Photo: AFP

On a bilateral basis – which has been done as you said by Ireland, Spain and Norway – the French are now considering this possibility “as soon as it is useful”, as President Macron said.

We are on a trend which will lead us to recognise Palestine as a state. First, it is in all the resolutions of the UN for the last 70 years.

Nowadays, we have this terrible situation, with the massacre by Hamas which is, I would say, a result of despair, which is no justification but it is a result of a despair by the Palestinians who have been denied the right to have a state for the past 15 years by the Benjamin Netanyahu government.

There is the terrible offensive by the Israeli Defence Forces on Gaza. The trauma is there but everyone is thinking of any political solution, and the French in particular, and we are not alone in thinking that only the two-state solution will settle the issue.

The question is how, which territories, which sovereignty, these are questions which are open. I think one day there will be two states, for the security of Israel.

We are in favour of Israel and have supported its security since the beginning, since the creation of Israel in 1947, but we think there is no security for Israel without a Palestinian state because the Palestinians are entitled to have their state.

So one must think of it with the involvement of other countries, which are also supporting and granting security to Israel. We can expect a major role played not only by the traditional actors like Egypt, Jordan and others, but also by Saudi Arabia and members of the Security Council, in particular China and Russia.

So we are in a process which will lead us to new developments but peace and security can only be secured if there are two states. The process of recognition of a Palestinian state is on track and we will come to a result.

The Paris Olympic Games open on July 28. It seems that geopolitics is now creeping in. Are there risks that this event will be overtaken or overshadowed by geopolitics?

The Olympics is usually a moment in which the Olympic ideals mean a sort of truce in controversies and fights. There should be a truce on the battlefields. This was an issue discussed by both presidents Xi and Macron and they agreed on that issue. But it does not depend on us, it depends on the fighters.

The Olympic Torch at Mont-Saint-Michel in France last month on its way to Paris for the 2024 Games which begin in July. Photo: Reuters

France, as an organiser with the International Olympic Committee, hopes that the Olympic Charter will be respected. The charter means that during the Games, in different disciplines, there is no controversy and so we are taking all the necessary measures for the protection of athletes belonging to those nations that are involved in struggles, in combat, in fights.

We want the Games to be peaceful among the players who are men and women, that they are peaceful, and there is no controversy and a spirit of truce. That’s what I would say.

Is security a big concern?

Security is a concern for all Games because they are open to the world. People travel and the world has a lot of tensions, but security measures will be taken.

France is very much used to the organisation of big events of that kind. We had the Rugby World Cup last year, which was a big success. We have had many events in the past in which security has always been assured. Times are complicated, but I would say that Paris, France should be during that time a place of peace, relief and serenity.

How do you see the rise of populism in France, the US and other parts of the world and do you think it will jeopardise democracy as some people have said?

Populism has become a reality, it’s true, and we shall see by the next European elections that there will be more populist votes than we would like. But the thing is, that we are in democracies and the vote is free and people express what they think.

Either they want or they refuse some ideas. There can be a lot of protests as well, often populism is protesting and expressing itself at the ballot box, rather than on the street, maybe both.

It’s a phenomenon we can observe across the European continent. Also, Brexit was an expression of populism in certain ways. We have possible votes in favour of president Trump’s second term in the US against the establishment.

The answer should be that we have to adopt some reforms in the EU which would make people reconciled with the way our democracies are functioning.

People don’t refuse democracy as such because they go and vote. People want things to work better in our countries. We are in a world which is changing. People who are sticking to the past very often are reluctant to change themselves, to be adaptable.

So are we and the relationship we have with the rest of the world. Free circulation of people, of goods and capital has profited many but not everyone and all that has puzzled people.

Governments should take lessons from these populist votes, I would say, and try to give more trust and confidence to the population. That’s what we try to do in France.