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German-Chinese ties at a Crossroads?

Matthias von Hein (tt)November 9, 2005

A sharp rise in bilateral trade and direct German investments in China turned the German-Chinese relations under Chancellor Schröder into a success story. But that could change under Angela Merkel.

Gerhard Schröder and Hu Jintao will meet for the last time in BerlinImage: AP

When planning his European tour, Chinese President Hu Jintao must have expected to be introduced to the new German government in Berlin. The beginning of Hu's state visit on Thursday, however, falls in the midst of drawn-out coalition negotiations, which the Chinese government has been following calmly and pragmatically.

"I do not believe that (Germany) is in particular or unbelievable difficulties. It is an internal question for Germany. As far as I can understand it, it doesn't matter who is in power. They (German politicians) all want to have friendly relations with us. All of them consider a strategic relationship with China as very important," said Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing at a recent press conference in Beijing.

After becoming chancellor in 1998, Gerhard Schröder adopted the attitude of his predecessor, Helmut Kohl, who saw his country's China policy as, above all, an economic issue. Under Angela Merkel, no major changes in the German-Chinese relations are expected in this respect.

So far, so good

Chinesen in Berlin
There are around 20,000 Chinese students at German universitiesImage: AP

Both sides have reasons to be satisfied. The International Conference on Renewable Energies, which opened in Beijing on Nov. 7, has been largely financed and co-organized by Germany. Some 20,000 Chinese students are studying at German universities. Bilateral trade has quadrupled since the Social Democrats and the Green party came into power seven years ago.

But Professor Eberhard Sandschneider, a China expert from Berlin, points out that a new orientation of German foreign policy under Merkel may indirectly influence the relations with China.

"Future-Chancellor Angela Merkel made it clear that she would make a considerable effort to improve transatlantic relations. China has, in the meantime, become an essential point of discussion in transatlantic relations -- something along the lines of: how should one deal with the rise of China in economic, but also, potentially, military matters. It turns out that there are clear differences of opinion between Washington and Europe or Berlin in this respect," Sandschneider said.

Angela Merkel und Gerhard Schröder
Will Angela Merkel turn over a new leaf when it comes to China policy?Image: AP

The differences are particularly clear in regard to the question of lifting the EU arms embargo, which was imposed on China in 1989 after the Chinese government brutally suppressed the country's democratic movement. When the EU started discussing lifting the embargo, Washington and Tokyo raised serious concerns. And while in April 2005 Gerhard Schröder -- resolutely, though, in the end, not successfully -- pushed for the end of the embargo in a German parliamentary debate, Angela Merkel argued that the embargo should stay in place.

A hot topic

During his visit to Berlin, the Chinese president will most likely insist on getting rid of the arms ban. His Foreign Minister Li made the Chinese position very clear:

"The EU arms embargo is a case of political discrimination. All the leaders of the EU that I have come in contact with believe that it is a legacy of the Cold War, is poorly founded and is useless and only harmful. This should have been thrown into the trash heap of history a long time ago," Li said.

China Waffen Plakat in Schanghai
Chinese military potential is seen as a threat in the USA and JapanImage: AP

It's an unpleasant topic for the Germans. Thus, presumably, government spokesman Thomas Steg said on Monday in Berlin that lifting the embargo would not figure as a prominent topic during Hu Jintao's visit. Since it is a European embargo, only a unanimous decision from EU state governments can revoke the ban.

Human rights will hardly play a role either. The German government refers often to the fact that the two countries have institutionalized a dialogue on constitutional state issues since 2000. Human rights organizations, on the other hand, have called for more obvious advocacy of civil rights.

End of euphoria?

Demonstration für Menschenrechte in Peking
A human rights protester in Beijing, asking for "return of my innocence"Image: AP

Instead, Berlin concentrates on economic topics. They will be tightly interlocked with the political talks during Hu Jintao's visit.

And even though deals worth around 1.4 billion euros ($1.65 billion) are expected to be signed over the three days, there are indications that the euphoria for China that German businesspeople have expressed in the past may be running out of steam.

The difficulties that German companies encounter on the Chinese market -- unsatisfactory protection of property, for example --are increasingly becoming a topic of discussion. Hu will be asked to address these questions not only in Berlin, but also in the UK and Spain.

"A highly specialized company which brings an internationally leading technology on the Chinese market cannot be certain that this technology will not be stolen and used in a competing product, not only in China, but eventually also on our own markets," said Professor Sandschneider.