Former Chancellor Schroeder has said he will attend the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in Beijing unlike his successor Merkel. DW-WORLD.De spoke with an expert about the two leaders' differing approaches to China.
Under Schroeder, Germany's China policy was shaped by economics
Earlier this month, former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder said he will travel to Beijing to attend the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games. His successor, Angela Merkel, who has taken a tougher line on China, is staying away. In an article, Schroeder criticized Merkel's firm public stance on human rights in China, saying Europe can only influence China through " cooperation based on trust" and not through public denunciations.
DW-WORLD.DE spoke with Gudrun Wacker, Asia and China expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs about whether Germany's China policy has fundamentally changed and how, if at all, the country can positively influence China's position on human rights.
Former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder has announced he is going to attend the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in Beijing while current Chancellor Angela Merkel has said she's not. How significant is this?
Gudrun Wacker says there hasn't been a radical shift in Germany's China policy
It's not really significant because Chancellor Merkel never planned on attending the opening ceremony. It was always clear that she plans to travel to China only once this year -- for the ASEM (Asia Europe Meeting) summit in October. That's why it's not correct when the German media reports that the chancellor is "boycotting" the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games.
Schroeder has accused the conservative Christian Democrats and their sister Bavarian party, the Christian Social Union, of damaging relations with China with a new strategy paper on Asia that calls for a break with Germany's previous China policy. What do you think of his criticism?
The strategy paper was published at a time when there was a lot of bad blood between Germany and China because of Chancellor Merkel's meeting with the Dalai Lama. That's why it seemed a bit like Germany's whole position on China was being revamped. But if you actually look at Germany's China policy, nothing really important has changed. This strategy paper is an attempt to take into account the whole Asian region, whose economic and political significance has increased in the past years. At the same time, the paper addresses fears and concerns among the population also because the media's reporting on China is partly extremely negative.
Do you agree that this strategy paper has caused "huge damage on the foreign policy front?"
The document has been drawn up by a parliamentary group. It's not the parliament but the government that is responsible for foreign policy -- the foreign ministry, the federal chancellery and other ministries all play a role. The strategy paper may have ruffled feathers in China, but as I said before, it was because of the Merkel-Dalai Lama meeting. I can't really judge whether it's caused serious damage.
The strategy paper emphasizes the importance of India and Japan for Germany. Does that signal a shift in Germany's Asia policy?
Germany's foreign policy is embedded in European policies on Asia. The European security strategy of Javier Solana, the EU's foreign policy chief, from 2003 lists three countries with which the European Union aspires to have a strategic partnership -- India, China and Japan. If you look at how often leading German leaders travel to these countries, then China tops the list. The strategy paper by the conservative parties is an attempt to show that there are other important partners in the region apart from China. For instance, India is gaining in importance and is the partner for Germany in South Asia. That's why I don't think that much has changed in Germany's policies on the region and definitely not because of the strategy paper.
Relations between Germany and China have cooled of late. How does that affect ties between Europe and China?
Merkel's meeting with the Dalai Lama incensed the Chinese goverment
"Cooled" is the wrong word. There simply have been more rows with China in the past years. For the EU, this has mainly to do with economic and trade issues. The more you trade with each other, the greater the possibility that there will be a row. Besides, the population in Europe fears China much more than was the case five years ago. That's because China has become much more stronger -- especially economically -- and has turned out to be a relatively difficult partner when it comes to certain issues such as climate change which is important to EU and German foreign policy.
It's said that Germany's China policy under former Chancellor Schroeder was shaped by economic issues whereas Chancellor Merkel's policy is more political and value-based. Do you agree?
I think the economy plays a central role and Germany, just like the EU, is trying to support China in its reform policies and internal reforms. I don't think it's right to see things in black and white -- under Schroeder, the economy dictated policy and now values are a priority. It's simply not true if you look at the many layers of Germany-China relations.
Schroeder also criticized what he said were "ritualistic, symbolic activities, which are only aimed at the German public" in his remarks about China. What do you think of that?
Of course you have to repeatedly bring up human rights. The question is how you do it and which approach can in the long run lead to changes. For example, we have an ongoing dialogue with China on the rule of law. The larger public doesn't take part in it but that doesn't mean that the dialogue is superfluous or senseless. The other way around, it's easy to say Germany's current China policy is only aimed at voters in Germany. That's certainly not an absolute but domestic politics does play a role in the China policy.
Do you think Germany is on the right path to positively influencing human rights in China?
Schroeder, here with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, is said to have focused too much on business with China during his term
I think we have very few possibilities to really influence China from the outside. The situation usually changes when certain developments take place in China that lead to the realization that you have to do something about a problem. That was very apparent on the death penalty. But we can still offer support by inviting judges, lawyers, state prosecutors and also law professors from China, train people and discuss with them so that there's a readiness to offer solutions in China.
How do you compare the China policy of Schroeder and the Merkel government?
First off, I'd say that I see more continuity rather than breaks. China is seen as an important partner, not just on economics but when it comes to global problems -- for instance, when it comes to weapons of mass destruction and climate change. These problems can't be solved without constructively engaging China to work on a solution. If the mood has changed a bit, it's because intensive contacts have led to some conflicts. Another reason is that a certain soberness with Europe has set in China, that it can't be a counterweight to the US.