Li Keqiang is on his first political tour as the prime minister of China. The first EU country on his itinerary is Germany, China's number-one trading partner in the bloc.
The first thing Li will do on his trip to Germany from May 26 to 27 will be to visit Sanssouci Palace in Potsdam. It will be a good spot for reflection; when Prussian King Frederick the Great commissioned the construction of the palace around 250 years ago, Emperor Qianlong of the Qing Dynasty was in power. Under Qianlong, China attained its largest expansion ever.
Today, China is second to Japan as the world's largest economy and it is soon to pass up the US as the largest trading nation. China has the largest currency reserves - around three trillion euros. Germany is China's number-one trading partner in Europe. A few days ahead of his trip to Germany, Li Keqiang published a report on Sino-German ties in the German weekly "Die Zeit." It highlights the excellent economic ties between the two countries; states that bilateral trade makes up 30 percent of all trade between China and the EU; that German investment in China rose by nearly 30 percent in the year 2012 to well over one billion euros; and that pertaining to foreign investment in Germany, China ranks third; and so on.
Trade dispute and protectionism
"These talks will basically be to keep economic ties open, to prevent protectionist reactions in Europe," China expert Sebastian Heilmann told DW. From China's point of view, he said, the German government was playing a central role by advocating open trade with the People's Republic and speaking out against protectionism.
Just ahead of Li's trip, the trade dispute between the EU and China escalated and is sure to be a central topic in Berlin. The dispute involves a number of issues: Due to dumping allegations, the EU announced punitive tariffs on solar panels from China; the Union has also initiated proceedings for dumping against mobile phone techonology from China; and there is also an ongoing dispute between Chinese airlines and the EU. Chinese airlines have been ordered by Beijing to abstain from paying air traffic emissions taxes for flights to the EU. Now they are facing a ban at European airports.
No uniform China policy
China expert Heilmann expects the Germans will try to ease the tension. Germany has no interest in a trade war, as it would likely affect German exports to China. It would also lead to tension between Germany's foreign trade policy and the European Commission, he added. The Europeans do not seem to be able to come up with a collective China policy and then follow through with it.
"The EU has 28 different China policies - each member nation has its own. And then there is the EU-China policy," China expert Eberhard Sandschneider told DW. "This gives the Chinese the opportunity to play European countries off against each other according to their own interests."
When Li Keqiang meets with Chancellor Angela Merkel on Sunday, May 26, it will not be their first encounter with each other. During Merkel's last trips to Beijing, Li was present. And when Li was voted prime minister in March, Merkel was the first foreign politician to congratulate him over the phone. Merkel is also said to have a good relationship with Li's predecessor Wen Jiabao.
Liu Liqun, Germany expert at the Beijing Foreign Studies University, sees even more potential for the relationship between Li and Merkel: "Wen Jiabao was born in 1942, Merkel in 1954 and Li Keqiang in 1955. The small age difference between Merkel and Li means that they will probably find a common language much more quickly."
Sandschneider agrees that personal relations have an impact on political relations: "International politics is not a dehumanized process. It is about people coming together. And it is true that it is easier for two people who get along well to negotiate and solve problems than two people who can't stand each other."
The last thing in Li's itinerary is a meeting with 94-year-old former Chancellor Helmut Schmidt on Monday, May 27. In April Schmidt published his newest book on China titled "Ein letzter Besuch" (one last visit).