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Why Europe and America will always think differently on China

In 1964, when recognising “red” China was still career-death for a US president, Charles de Gaulle did just that. He later took France out of Nato’s integrated military command. On an epic, almost Homeric tour of Latin America, he pledged to that region his solidarity against an unnamed but not hard-to-guess hegemon. If never quite equidistant between the US and the USSR, he liked to draw a spurious equivalence between their overbearing power.

Put Emmanuel Macron in some perspective, then. Yes, in word and comportment, he got too close to China during his recent visit there. He has put distance between France and the rest of Europe, between Europe and the US, between the west and Taiwan. No leader in the democratic world is more in need of an editor.

It is just that any one of his predecessors or successors might have done the same, or worse. France often wants to be a “third force” in the world. (Before the cold war was quite over, François Mitterrand proposed a European Confederation that would include Russia.) It also has more diplomatic and military clout than any other EU state. Put those realities together and “Europe”, to the degree that such an actor exists in world affairs, is never going to commit wholesale to the US line on China. The issue isn’t one impetuous man.

There are reasons, beyond France, to doubt that America and Europe will ever be as one on China. First, the stakes aren’t the same. The US is defending a position as the number one power in the world. Neither Europe nor any of its constituent nations has had that status for about a century. Per se, the rise of a second power does not hit home in Berlin or Brussels quite as it does in Washington. (Though, as the European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen says, the way that power is wielded increasingly does.) There isn’t the same official commitment to maintaining supremacy because there isn’t the same supremacy.

Second, the US is, or could be, self-sufficient. It has the wherewithal in energy, agriculture and technology. In the art of etching billions of transistors on to a silicon chip, it is still working to reduce its exposure to outside forces. But it can at least contemplate “decoupling” (a phrase that its leaders use much less than we commentators, by the way) from China. That’s less true of a continent whose various dependencies were mortifyingly exposed when Russia invaded Ukraine. Europe is condemned by circumstance to play a cuter and more perfidious game.

Then there is the immutable fact of distance. If, in the end, even the most awkward nations in western Europe clung to the US during the cold war, it was because the Soviets were too near a problem to risk doing anything else. That isn’t true of China.

In his recent book, which deserves a less soppy title than How Asia Found Herself, the historian Nile Green wonders what and even where is that continent. So spread out, so varied in its civilisations, some of which were slow to contact and comprehend each other, Asia might be too capacious a thing to be defined.

Follow this thought a bit further, and you realise that even the US has a claim as an Asian country. This is not just a matter of several thousand miles of Pacific coastline. Or the demographic trends that suggest Asian-Americans will pass Hispanics as the largest immigrant group in the US by mid-century. It is sheer habit. Whether we date it from the opening of Japan (1853) or the Spanish-American War (1898), the US was a military factor in Asia long before it ever was in Europe. During the “isolationist” 1930s, it was in possession of the Philippines. Japan alone accounts for 31 per cent of active-duty US troops stationed abroad. California, the most important cultural, technological and military state, is Asia-facing in more than just the physical sense.

The US feels every power shift in Asia with the sensitivity of, if not quite a local, then something far more than a remote trading partner and security guarantor. This level of psychic investment in that “theatre” does not exist among the governing class of any European capital.

None of this means that Macron’s own vision of China will ever carry the day in Europe. There is too much mistrust of French motives. And in Britain, Germany, Poland and the Baltics, too much deference to America. But nor can Europe ever match the US view of China, either in content or in the awesome priority it is accorded. How could it? Macron counts himself a man of destiny. Geography is destiny.

janan.ganesh@ft.com