Less than two months before the start of the Olympic Games in Beijing, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier is leaving for China, where he and his entourage of business leaders and a cultural delegation will meet leading politicians. Later this week, Steinmeier is scheduled to visit the earthquake-hit Sichuan province.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier
German-Chinese relations are close, and they’re complicated. Economic ties are strong: both are each other’s largest and most important trading partner in their respective parts of the world.
(Europe's biggest economy exported almost 30 billion euros worth of goods to China in 2007, according to the German statistics office. In the other direction, trade totaled more than 54 billion euros.)
Political relations are also close; the heads of state meet on a regular basis, and there’s a lively exchange at all levels of government, be it science, education, the justice system or human rights questions.
Complicated human rights matters
Human rights issues are the most complicated aspect of German-Chinese relations. In China, human and civil rights, despite improvements, tend to be disregarded. The German Chancellor Angela Merkel regards herself as an advocate of value-oriented foreign policies -- and that has consequences for her interaction with China.
“I have the impression that Merkel’s basic attitude towards China is a clear renunciation of her predecessors’ policies, she takes a different view and that shapes her policies and is part of her political style,” explained Eberhard Sandschneider of the German Society for Foreign Policies.
An indicator of this different style is, for instance, the chancellor’s official meeting last September with the Dalai Lama, right on the heels of a successful visit to China. Beijing was angered and immediately froze all official contact.
Relations went back to business-as-usual only after Merkel’s foreign minister officially reiterated that Germany adheres to the “One China Policy”.
“Back to normal”
In January of this year, Steinmeier told reporters that “a good and close partnership between Germany and China” had “a long tradition” adding, however, that nobody could “conceal conceal that the past weeks and months hadn’t been easy” for the relationship.
Steinmeier also said that he was pleased to announce that relations were now “back to normal”.
But of course the issue of Tibet lingered on. While Steinmeier distanced himself from Merkel's meeting with the Dalai Lama and steered clear of meeting the spiritual leader when he visited Germany again last month, it is clear that overall relations with the West did cool following the unrest in Tibet and the demonstrations surrounding the Olympic flame’s relay.
Indirectly, the earthquake catastrophe in Sichuan caused a shift in relations. The West experienced a different China, efficient and open. Meanwhile, China experienced a different West, showing solidarity with the victims and displaying a readiness to help.
The basic dilemma of Germany’s China policies, however, remains unchanged, as Professor Sandschneider explained: “Of course, from a Western point of view, Germany would like certain things to change in China’s policies, for instance concerning human rights issues. It’s in the West’s interest to see an improvement in the situation in Tibet.”
“On the other hand, it is just as important that China remains a stable country, which is what we need as a trade partner in a global economy.”