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A special relationship?

Matthias von Hein / sdmJuly 4, 2014

How much China means to Germany is obvious given the number of trips Chancellor Merkel has made to the country: seven. But that number also shows just how hard it is to deal with the increasingly assertive Asian giant.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and China's President Xi Jinping arrive for an agreement signing at the Chancellery in Berlin March 28, 2014.
Image: Reuters

In March this year, Xi Jinping, China's president and chief of its Communist Party, visited Berlin. This spring it was Germany's turn: Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel traveled to Beijing. In the fall, their Chinese counterparts are expected for intergovernmental talks in Berlin. And yet, despite this abundance of meetings, German Chancellor Angela Merkel is embarking on a three-day state visit to China. No other European leader has met with the Chinese leadership as much as Merkel.

At the moment, there is a certain dynamic in the Sino-German relation. Merkel's current trip is aimed at keeping that momentum going, says Sebastian Heilmann, president of the Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS). The analyst believes that the upcoming government consultations will be the main focus of the talks which will also cover issues ranging from technology to education and cultural programs. Not all of those can be negotiated at a lower level, hence the importance of a meeting between the heads of state.

China's springboard?

On Sunday, July 6, Merkel begins her trip in Sichuan, a southwestern Chinese province with roughly 80 million people. Berlin has had a general consulate there for ten years, given that Chengdu is regarded by German companies as a springboard to the relatively underdeveloped western parts of China. Around 160 German firms are registered in Chengdu, among them a Volkswagen factory which the chancellor is set to visit.

Wenshu Yuan ancient district at dusk, Chengdu, Sichuan, China
Merkel is set to start her trip in Chengdu, the capital of SichuanImage: picture-alliance/dpa

From there, Merkel will travel to Beijing, where she will join Prime Minister Li Keqiang for discussions and on Monday, she will meet President Xi Jinping. Liu Liqun, professor of German Studies at the Beijing Foreign Studies University, expects the talks to center on economic issues.

Outside of Europe, China is Germany's most important trading partner. For German plant and machinery installers, the Asian country is their biggest market. But the opposite is also true: Germany is China's first trading partner in Europe. And since political backing is good for business in China, Merkel is travelling with a high-level business delegation, which includes Frank Appel, the head of Deutsche Post, Joe Kaeser of Siemens, Martin Winterkorn, of Volkswagen, Thomas Enders of Airbus und Jürgen Fitschen of Deutsche Bank.

Economy above all

The recently founded Sino-German Advisory Committee on Economy will meet in Beijing for the first time, in the presence of Merkel and her Chinese counterpart, Li Keqiang. Its aim is to identify trade problems between the two countries and "make specific policy recommendations, which will then be analyzed by the respective governments," Heilmann said.

There are, in fact, plenty of problems, says Germany expert Liu Liqun. In a DW interview, he states that there is room for improvement in terms of enforcing the protection of intellectual property in China. "Although progress has been made over the past few years, the level of enforcement is still inadequate," says Liu, adding that this could be a problem for future bilateral projects. 2015 will be the Sino-German "Year of Innovation," even though the countries have yet to agree on a concrete aim, and with Berlin giving only a broad definition of "innovation."

In addition to research and technology, changes in other areas such as the rule of law, the strengthening of social security systems or education are set to be addressed - but the jury's still out on whether Beijing will allow it or not.

Ping-pong politics

The crisis in Syria and Iraq, the atomic disputes with North Korea and Iran, the tensions in the South and East China Seas and the Ukraine crisis will be the main international topics during the visit. Liu Liqun considers the two countries' positions to be close – mostly because Beijing doesn't really want to get involved in Ukraine. However, Heilmann doubts Merkel can persuade the Chinese leadership to use their influence in Moscow for the sake of de-escalating tensions in Ukraine. "China consistently pursues its own interests in international politics, often flip-flopping on issues and this gives them leeway in the various political quadrants."

Visitors watch a robot arm of Staubli drawing during the 14th China International Industry Fair 2012 in Shanghai, China, 6 November 2012.
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Before the trip the Germans emphasized that the issue of human rights would be discussed in Beijing. However, it is likely that these topics will be dealt with behind closed doors. Merkel is expected to press the case for international travel permission for Ai Weiwei, the Chinese artist and political activist. For months there have been hopes that the artist, detained by the country's authorities, might be allowed to travel to Berlin, where his biggest exhibition to date is being held until mid-July.