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Asia

Merkel's China trip is not just panda diplomacy

Germany and China have been cultivating a brisk exchange, and since last year, have held joint government consultations. The current meeting takes place in the midst of major personnel changes in Beijing.

The death of the panda, Bao Bao, is not likely to be a bad omen for Sino-German relations. The bear died last Wednesday at the Berlin Zoo at the age of 34 – the last living panda in Germany. In his youth Bao Bao played a symbolic role on the diplomatic stage. He was a gift to former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt on his state visit to China in 1980 by then-Chinese leader Hua Guofeng.

Panda Bao Bao eats a cake he received for his 25th anniversary at the Berlin zoo in Berlin, Germany. Photo: Franka Bruns File/AP/dapd

Bao Bao was a symbol of warming Sino-German relations

In the meantime, relations between Germany and China have progressed well beyond the phase of 'panda diplomacy.' Now, after 40 years of diplomatic ties, cooperation is extraordinarily close. The most visible expression of this close relationship is the Sino-German government consultations. Germany only maintains such close exchanges with six other countries – all of them European Union members.

Chancellor Angela Merkel arrived Thursday (30.08.2012) in Beijing for the second round of consultations, accompanied by seven ministers. At the first round in June, 2011, China's head of government came to Berlin with 13 ministers – more than any other overseas visit. The talks culminated in 14 signed agreements, including business deals worth some 20 billion euros ($27 billion) at the time.

Panda diplomacy and economic interests

Germany is China's most important trade partner in Europe and Europe is China's most important trade partner worldwide. Conversely, China is Germany's fifth largest trade partner and second largest outside Europe, behind the United States. The booming export of German machinery and automobiles to China has to some extent cushioned the drop in sales to European partners caused by the euro crisis.

A Chinese ship transports Chinese goods Photo: Carsten Neff/dapd

Germany is China's most important trade partner in Europe

"The economic ties are of absolute paramount importance, since they are operating relatively smoothly at the moment, despite the occasional jostling going on," says the Trier-based sinologist Sebastian Heilmann, referring to intellectual property issues or the export restrictions on the rare earth metals used in the IT industry.

According to Heilmann, a 'division of labor' of sorts has emerged between Germany and China in the industrial sector. "Germany is responsible for high- tech and high-end products, while China supplies medium-range industrial products, mostly to developing and emerging countries," he says.

Broad basis for cooperation

For Chancellor Merkel the economic ties also have the highest priority. During every visit to China she promotes Chinese investment in Germany. In public, of course, she naturally emphasizes the entire breadth and width of bilateral relations, as she did in her video podcast at the end of January before her last trip to Beijing. Before turning to economic issues, she underlined the broad spectrum of cooperation with China.

"From the sciences and economic cooperation, to the rule of law and agriculture, we have intensified our cooperation in many areas. And, of course, an especially important topic is the environment, in conjunction with protecting the climate and the development of renewable energies," the chancellor said.

Contentious issues: Syria and Iran

Merkel meets with Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao in February, 2012. Photo: Kay Nietfeld dpa

Merkel met with Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao during her last visit in February

There is, however, not a consensus on all political issues. On foreign policy, Germany and China have different views on how to deal with the civil war in Syria and Iran's nuclear program, for example.

At last year's government consultations, Merkel expressed her support for regime critics and press freedom. It is these differences of opinion that make the government consultations so valuable, says the Berlin political scientist Eberhard Sandschneider.

"It does not mean, of course, that by introducing such a forum all the problems can be cleared up, but you have a forum at the highest level to talk about problems and perhaps, sooner or later, to find a solution," says Sandschneider.

Beijing self-absorbed at the moment

Not too many concrete results can be expected, however, from this round of consultations because China's ruling Communist party is in the midst of a leadership change. The switch is planned for this fall at the 18th party conference, although no precise date has yet been announced for this most important event of the last ten years. Sandschneider also does not expect any spectacular results: "Beijing, at the moment, is primarily involved with clarifying a successor. Only when that has happened can we hope for new accents or initiatives from Beijing."

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