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China and Germany to hold high-level talks in Berlin

Matthias von Hein
June 18, 2023

Consultations between Germany and China used to demonstrate partnership. But rifts have emerged over China's "rock-solid" friendship with Russia, tensions with Taiwan and repression of the Uyghur minority in Xinjiang.

Chinese and German flags flying against a background of trees
China and Germany used to describe themselves as close partnersImage: Thomas Koehler/photothek/imago images

"Acting sustainably together" is the motto of the seventh round of German-Chinese government consultations, for which Premier Li Qiang and several members of his Cabinet are coming to Berlin on Monday. But the togetherness between Germany and China is less apparent.

This was evident during the recent encounter between German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius and his Chinese counterpart, Li Shangfu, on the sidelines of the Shangri-La Dialogue defense summit in Singapore after reports came to light that former German air force officers were involved in a Chinese air force program to train pilots. Pistorius said the practice should end immediately.

Thorsten Benner, the director of the German Public Policy Institute, told DW that was a "sign that we have to be alert because Beijing is using every chance to gain access to crucial technologies or capabilities, to strengthen its own industrial and military base."

Boris Pistorius and his Chinese counterpart, Li Shangfu, in Singapore, several other men
The mood was cool when the defense minister of Germany and China met in Singapore Image: Britta Pedersen/dpa/picture alliance

A brimming conflict?

There is increasing fuel for conflict between Beijing and Berlin on issues ranging from the Chinese government's insistence on maintaining its "rock-solid" friendship with Russia despite the invasion of Ukraine to growing tensions in the Taiwan Strait and the repression of the Uyghur minority in Xinjiang. And China's rivalry with the United States, an ally of Germany's, only serves to exacerbate the situation.

Still, China was Germany's most important trading partner for the seventh year in a row in 2022. The exchange of goods amounted to about €300 billion ($329 billion) — Germany's massive trade deficit with China reached over €80 billion.

A container chip in the port of Hamburg
China is Germany's most important trade partnerImage: Winfried Rothermel/picture alliance

Official German documents simultaneously refer to China as "partner," "competitor" and "strategic rival." Germany's government used to emphasize the partnership aspect, as ongoing bilateral consultations since 2011 seem to demonstrate. This form of high-level dialogue is only conducted with particularly close partners. In 2014, the relationship was even elevated to the rank of "comprehensive strategic partnership." But the mood toward China has soured in Berlin and other EU capitals since. The weight has clearly shifted toward strategic rivalry.

China: Economic friend or foe?

'Common EU-China policy'

Barbara Pongratz, an analyst with the Berlin-based Mercator Institute for China Studies, told DW that this year's consultations would be different.  "The German government wants to say goodbye to 'business as usual,'" she said. There are signs that there will be "less grand orchestration," she added, and no major business contracts will likely be concluded.

The 2021 coalition agreement that united the center-left Social Democrats (SPD), Greens and neoliberal Free Democrats (FDP) had already indicated that Germany's China policy was going to change. China is mentioned 12 times, including under the subheading "Bilateral and Regional Relations," where the new partners write: "In order to be able to realize our values and interests in the systemic rivalry with China, we need a comprehensive China strategy in Germany within the framework of the common EU-China policy. We want to continue the intergovernmental consultations and make them more European."

Policy not announced

The German government has not yet announced its strategy for China. "A real discussion regarding the Europeanization of German-Chinese relations, of the China strategy or the government consultations does not really exist," Pongratz said. The policy is supposed to be based on the National Security Strategy, which has yet to be adopted because of differences of opinion within the coalition.

Eberhard Sandschneider, the director of the Research Institute of the German Society for Foreign Policy, said the fact that the release of the strategy has been delayed could be favorable for the talks. "If a paper had come out now that was overly critical of China, one might have to assume that China, in its self-confidence, would have canceled the consultations altogether," Sandschneider said. "The fact that there are internal disagreements in the German government is an open secret," he added. "The Chinese know it, too."

This is not surprising, given that the arguments are being fought out publicly, particularly between the Greens, who say they have adopted a tough values-based stance toward China, and the Social Democrats, whose focus is more on economic interests. While, for example, Green Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock sought an open exchange of blows with her Chinese counterpart, Qin Gang, when she visited Beijing in April, the conservative wing of the SPD parliamentary group has published a position paper calling for policy to be pragmatic rather than hostile.

Baerbock and her Chinese counterpart, Qin Gang, stand at lecterns with flowers on them
Foreign Minister Baerbock is more critical of China than some of her coalition colleaguesImage: Kira Hofmann/photothek/IMAGO

Though there might be a perception that there are major differences between Baerbock and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and that the current approach to China is characterized by party politics, Pongratz said, "if you listen closely, you see that there are differences in tone but their messages are not that different."

As Scholz will be chairing the government consultations, there might be a friendlier tone. Sandschneider said he doubted that there would be any tangible results, but he added that it is important that the talks are taking place in the first place, particularly after three years when there have been no large-scale face-to-face meetings. "I agree with the Chinese colleagues that I talk to," he said. "It's time for them to meet again, and not only in official sessions, but also in the famous coffee breaks so that they can exchange a few personal words with each other. That changes the atmosphere."

This article was originally written in German.

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