Scholz's China trip raised more doubts than congratulations
William Yang in Taipei
November 5, 2022
Despite diplomatic words about what Germany and China have in common, experts say that Chancellor Olaf Scholz's trip both contravened German government strategy and endangered EU unity.
On Friday, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz went to China, despite domestic and international skepticism about his trip. As the first leader from the G7 group of countries to visit China since the pandemic, Scholz said he had "candid exchanges" with Chinese President Xi Jinping on a wide range of issues, including the Ukraine war, human rights and the use of nuclear weapons.
Scholz also said the two leaders had come together "at a time of great tension" which echoed Xi's call for China and Germany to increase cooperation amid "times of change and turmoil."
Despite the diplomatic words, Scholz's 11-hour trip to China remains controversial — and not least because Germany's current coalition government previously promised to change its approach to China, including reducing its dependency on the Asian giant. Experts say Scholz's trip shows that Germany hasn't really changed its policies towards China.
Prioritizing German economic interests
As he arrived in Beijing with a delegation of top executives from several influential German businesses, Scholz highlighted the need to maintain economic cooperation with China.
Despite warnings about Germany's over-reliance on China from German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock prior to the trip, Scholz said he wanted "to talk about how we can further develop our economic cooperation on other topics: climate change, food security, indebted countries."
"The trip sends a message that even though Berlin should be seriously rethinking the relationship with China, they are going back to business as usual," said Zsuzsa Anna Ferenczy, an assistant professor at National Dong Hwa University in Taiwan and a former political advisor to the European Parliament.
"While I think Europe needs to find a way to constructively talk to China from a position of strength, what Berlin is doing undermines that position by pursuing its own interests at the expense of the emerging, yet fragile, European unity that we've seen since the Ukraine war," she added.
Reinhard Bütikofer, a German politician and member of the Greens party in the European Parliament, told DW that Scholz's trip has contradicted the German coalition government's agreement and will also have a negative impact on the European Union. "He sent a message that continuing trade and investment will be a political priority [for him,]" Bütikofer said.
"Germany's China policy can't be developed on the basis of the Chancellor alone, who has ignored competent advice on China at least three times. When we founded the new German government, we agreed Germany's future China policy should be strongly integrated at the European level, and it should be coordinated in the trans-Atlantic relationship. Both haven't happened," Bütikofer added.
Prior to the trip, Scholz defended a controversial deal that allowed China's state-owned shipping company Costco to buy a minority 24.9% stake in one of Hamburg's port terminals, ignoring objections from several cabinet members including Baerbock. Originally Costco was supposed to take a 35% share but this was reduced.
China's human rights record
Apart from discussing business ties, Scholz told reporters he also expressed concerns about China's human rights record to Chinese leaders. This included Beijing's crackdown on the Uyghur ethnic minority and other Turkic minorities in Xinjiang. He emphasized that human rights are universally recognized and urged Beijing to uphold them. "This is not interference in internal affairs," Scholz said.
Scholz also said China had now agreed to let foreigners in China receive the BioNTech vaccination against COVID-19. Previously Beijing had not approved use of the vaccine inside China. Scholz said the two countries would strengthen their cooperation in areas like climate change and disease prevention.
Despite Scholz's efforts to highlight sensitive issues, former European Parliament political advisor Ferenczy thinks Scholz is merely "ticking the boxes" by telling media that he brought up China's human rights records with the Chinese leadership.
"When he announced the trip to China, this could have been handled in a different way by giving a more prominent role to difficult political issues," she told DW. "The question of human rights was never really part of the agenda."
Scholz's statement about raising the matter is not "an effective way" to tackle China's dire human rights record, which is very sensitive inside the country.
"Germans often prefer quiet diplomacy for human rights issues," she continued. "For a European member state that has the potential to have leverage over China, it's a significant failure to not use the opportunity to genuinely reengage China."
Disunity in the EU
German MEP Bütikofer thinks the trip will have a negative impact on the European Union and others agree it will trigger more difficult conversations in Brussels and perhaps even protests from Central and Eastern European countries. The Baltic states emphasized last month that it is important for the EU to speak to China with one voice.
"This visit is a manifestation of the fragmentation, not only within the EU, but also within the German political scene," said Marcin Jerzewski, head of the Taiwan office of the European Values Center, a Czech think tank. "There is clearly a divergence on how to approach China, between the liberals and the Greens on the one hand, and the Social Democrats on the other hand."
Sari Arho Havren, China researcher and adjunct professor at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies, told DW that Scholz's trip gives Beijing a strong signal that Germany "would bring the EU to see Beijing again in a more pragmatic and favorable light."
"Beijing sees his trip as the Chancellor setting an example to encourage the rest of the EU leaders to follow his lead in establishing again a more pragmatic approach to the relationship with China," Havren said. "This would mean normalizing Beijing's behavior, [something] which is largely seen as the problem in the EU."
There's also a significant divergence in how the two leaders view the world, Havren noted.
Through this lens, which also includes possible reunification of China and Taiwan, an ongoing partnership with Russia is important to China, as is a Europe that is not united on these issues.
"With increasingly deepened ties to China through its powerful companies, Germany would potentially make a common European response against China less likely, in case of needing to choose sides between Beijing and Washington," Havren concluded.