Can China Make Peace in Ukraine?  Macron Didn't Say No

French President Emmanuel Macron arrived in Beijing on Wednesday determined to carve out a different role for Europe that avoided an American confrontation with a firm China, and convinced that there was a place for China to end the war in Ukraine.

Battered at home by protests over his decision to raise France's retirement age, rejected in his repeated attempts to sway Russian President Vladimir V. Putin against a long war, Macron has turned to China as “the only country in the world capable of changed the Moscow calculus” in Ukraine, said a diplomatic official.

“Only China can have a game-changing effect,” said the official, who requested anonymity in line with French diplomatic practice. “We know there will be no Chinese criticism of Russia, but the president has worked very hard to see how, with China, we can be of use to Ukraine's interests.”

What exactly is in Macron's mind is unclear. China has never condemned Russia's invasion of Ukraine. He avoided using the word “war” to describe the Russian attack. It has embraced a “borderless” anti-Western partnership with Moscow, strengthened last month by President Xi Jinping's visit to Russia and a joint declaration of a “new era” liberated from what both countries see as American domination.

But the French leader loves to thread needles that are invisible to others. He seemed to detect a fair amount of Chinese disquiet over Mr. Putin for diplomatic ingenuity.

China, as Putin acknowledged in September, has expressed “questions and concerns” about the war. Unlike Mr. Putin, he is not interested in nuclear war; and has not closed the door on last month's suggestion from Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine's president, that China could “become a partner” in the search for a settlement.

The United States has downplayed China's role in Ukraine's peace efforts. That rules out China's 12-point plan put forward in February. But Mr Macron spoke to President Biden on the eve of his departure for Beijing and the two leaders aroused their “shared desire to engage China in accelerating an end to the war in Ukraine,” said the French president's statement.

However, clear differences remain in the approach to China. Taking his own independent position has strong political appeal for Mr Macron, for whom Europe's development as a global power is a recurring theme.

He has criticized the hardline Biden administration in China and believes any separation, or “disconnection”, is not good for Europe, given the huge economic interests at stake. The German auto industry is heavily dependent on the Chinese market; a possible deal with China for the sale of dozens of European Airbus aircraft is under discussion.

For China, too, at a time when relations with the United States are at their lowest point in decades, fostering partners in Europe, especially France and Germany, are of great economic and strategic importance when pursuing a post-Covid reopening.

In an interview with The New York Times ahead of Macron's visit, China's ambassador to the European Union, Fu Cong, urged Europe to be more independent from the United States, and suggested China's closeness to Russia had been exaggerated. Of the “borderless” friendship between the two countries, he said: “‘No borders' is just rhetoric.”

Mr Xi will hold more than six hours of meetings with Mr Macron over the course of his three-day visit—an extraordinary treatment that is a statement of serious diplomatic intent—including a joint visit to the southern city of Guangzhou, with which the Chinese leader has strong family ties.

Xi last month accused the United States of leading Western nations in an “all-out containment, encirclement and suppression” campaign against China. Clearly, he sees France as an important conversation partner as the Biden administration imposes strict export controls aimed at cutting off China's access to critical technology.

Through European economic outreach of a kind the United States is not ready to offer, Macron may have leverage in persuading China to assume a more constructive diplomatic role in Ukraine. China's recent achievements in brokering an unlikely deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran to restore diplomatic ties is a clear indication of the country's renewed reach and ambition.

“Our goal is not to cut ties with China,” the French official said. “Instead, our aim is to strengthen those bonds with a better foundation.”

For the Chinese Communist Party, strong growth is an indispensable guarantor of authority. But growth fell to 3 percent last year, the lowest rate in years. Europe can contribute much more to economic recovery than Russia, for all the talk of “borderless”.

Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, who accompanied Macron in a show of European weight, said in a speech last week that it was “impossible – or in the interest of Europe – to secede from China. Our relationships aren't black or white – and neither can our responses. This is why we need to focus on de-risk — not decouple.”

However, framing China's rise in more direct and ominous terms than Macron, he said that “China has now turned a page in an era of ‘reform and opening up' and is moving into a new era of security and control.”

Given that China “want to become the most powerful country in the world” by mid-century, and is determined to “transform the international order systemically with China at the center,” Europe must diversify from its dependence on China for strategic materials, Ms. von said der Leyen, who represents the EU's 27 members.

“We rely on one single supplier — China — for 98 percent of our supply of rare earths, 93 percent of our magnesium and 97 percent of our lithium,” he said, adding: “The batteries that power our electric vehicles are expected to increase. lithium demand 17 times by 2050.”

The French official said the public view of Ms. von der Leyen who was tougher about hardening China under Mr. Xi did not reflect the difference in appreciation, but Mr. Xi's determination. Macron to look ahead, to “find a way to build, once we know that.”

With both Mr Putin and Mr Xi, the French leadership's inclination has been to acknowledge on the one hand the threat they pose to Western values ​​and democracy, and on the other hand to insist that only dialogue can bring about beneficial change.

That dialogue with Putin, which was intense in the early months of the war, has fizzled out in recent months. It bears no obvious fruit.

“We are America's allies. We don't have the same distance between China and the United States,” the French official said. “But we don't have the same position in China, because we don't have the same interests.”

The potential for China to do great damage – either by arming Russia or attacking Taiwan – is too real, in France's view, for any approach other than “re-engagement on the basis of honest dialogue.”

This is not the Chinese of the Biden administration. But if Mr. Macron, and Europe at large, welcomes all of America's critical support for the war in Ukraine, they don't want the price of a revival of trans-Atlanticism to be Europe's loss to China.