Sigmar Gabriel and China's commerce minister have offered different reasons for their failure to appear at a meeting of investors. The trade talks in China are testing the German economy minister's diplomacy skills.
Denying a snub for his demands for more oversight of sales of German technology to Chinese companies, German Vice Chancellor and Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel said he and Chinese Commerce Minister Gao Hucheng had decided to skip Tuesday's meeting of the Sino-German Economic Committee in order to keep an appointment in Beijing with Prime Minister Li Keqiang (pictured). Gabriel said he and Gao had talked "at great length about which conditions German companies must expect in China."
The economy minister said he and Gao discussed Germany's concerns about price dumping in China's steel exports and a lack of access to China's market, where foreign investors can only do business with local partners. Beijing's protectionism is a thorn in Berlin's eye, as Germans say.
Initially, Germany's DPA news agency reported that China's commerce minister had canceled Tuesday's appearance. Gabriel's deputy, Matthias Machnig, would not call Gao's no-show an "affront." He told reporters that both sides had a "good and intense exchange of views."
Rather than apologizing to Germany's delegation for her colleague's absence, Deputy Commerce Minister Gao Yan complained of an "anti-investment mood" in Berlin in her opening speech to the committee. Last week, the Economy Ministry called for further security review before the Fujian Grand Chip Investment Fund LP's takeover of German chip equipment maker Aixtron. Gabriel, who leads the Social Democrats, said Aixtron was not discussed on Tuesday.
Gabriel has talks scheduled in Beijing, Chengdu and Hong Kong, where he is scheduled to open the Asia-Pacific Conference of German Business on Thursday before returning home on Saturday. The European Commission is expected to decide by the end of the year on granting China simplified trade access to the bloc.
'Standoffish' or 'self-confident'?
The economy minister is famous for his blustering belligerence and for speaking his mind. Many in Germany have worried that his style would not go down well in China.
"It's important not to come across as standoffish, but, in China, too, we should appear self-confident," Gabriel said in a newspaper interview ahead of his trip. "No one takes cowards or cajolery seriously."
Rights groups called on Gabriel to do more than talk trade. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) asked the vice chancellor to acknowledge the country's record on press freedom - from arresting journalists to censuring articles and blocking websites.
"Along with Turkey and Egypt, China is one of the largest prisons for journalists in the world," said Christian Mihr, who heads the German section of RSF. "The talks with the country's leading politicians cannot be limited to economic relations."
The vice chancellor was previously criticized for his eagerness to open Iran to German investors. Gabriel has come under fire from Social Democrats for his support of controversial trade deals with the United States and Canada that many fear could lead to the gutting of EU labor, environmental and consumer standards.
mkg/msh (KNA, Reuters, dpa)