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China and Germany: Partners and rivals

April 18, 2023

Following French and German visits to China, it remains unclear if the European Union — or even Germany itself — can speak in one voice on China. Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock is calling for a "clear line."

Annalena Baerbock and Qin Gang shaking hands
German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock did not mince her words during a recent trip to ChinaImage: Kira Hofmann/photothek/IMAGO

It's been another busy week for Germany's foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock. The Green Party official is one of the country's leading voices calling for a robust policy towards China. Meeting with her G7 counterparts in Karuizawa, Japan, she may have liked what she heard.

"We remind China of the need to uphold the purposes and principles of the UN Charter and abstain from threats, coercion, intimidation, or the use of force," Tuesday's communiqué, put out jointly by the ministers of the world's seven top democratic economies, said.

The meeting in Karuizawa marked the end of Baerbock's six-day trip to Asia that took her to China, South Korea and Japan. It was her first to China. While there, she criticized the country's human rights situation, much to her counterpart's displeasure.

"What China doesn't need is a master teacher from the West," China's Foreign Affairs Minister Qin Gang said, without specifically naming Germany or Baerbock.

The pushback did not keep the German foreign minister from addressing Beijing's threat to Taiwan. Officially, democratic Taiwan belongs to mainland China, and few countries recognize it as a sovereign state. China, therefore, considers any dispute with the island as a domestic affair that other countries should stay out of. It has been flexing its muscle more aggressively, for example with increased military exercises in the waters near Taiwan and more incursions into its airspace.

China: trading partner, competitor, rival — or all of the above?

One should not "turn a blind eye" to violations of international law, Baerbock said, especially in regards to Taiwan. At the G7 meeting, she noted how China's neighbors are "already feeling first hand how China increasingly wants to replace the existing, binding international rules with its own rules."

There needs to be a "clear line" on China, she added.

Such clarity has yet to materialize, neither at the European Union level, nor the German one. Despite repeated promises to do so, the German government remains without a unified strategy for engaging autocratic China — a nuclear power, the world's second largest economy and Germany's largest trading partner.

So far, instead of a single China strategy, there are several. Germany's three-party center-left coalition, comprised of the Social Democrats (SPD), Greens and neoliberal Free Democrats (FDP) cannot seem to agree on one.

What does 'de-risking' EU-China relations mean?

Last year, the Foreign Office and Economics Ministry — both under Greens leadership — revealed their own ideas on Germany's path forward with China. Main points included reducing economic dependence, and viewing China more as a competitor and rival. Business in regions with "particularly massive human rights violations," such as in Xinjiang, where the Uyghur Muslim minority has been subject to state persecution, should be halted according to the Greens.

Still, despite the party's ability to guide and represent German foreign policy, they do not set it. That is largely the purview of the chancellery, which is in the hands of the SPD and Olaf Scholz. His stance has been less clear, as his government says it is working on a general national security strategy before it gets down to one specifically aimed at China.

Germany's opposition steps up the pressure

The delay has given the opposition a chance to strike. The center-right Christian Democrats (CDU), for instance, are calling for a "national consensus on China policy," according to party paper obtained by DW.

"We expect Chancellor Scholz to take action, but so far he has been pulling his punches," the CDU's foreign policy spokesperson, Johannes Wadephul, told DW.

Like the Greens, the opposition is calling for reducing economic dependency. However, it is the conservatives themselves, under former Chancellor Angela Merkel, who boosted economic ties with China in a "change through trade" policy that hoped to liberalize the country by exposing it to Western markets.

A similar policy with Russia has been roundly deemed a failure, in light of that country's all-out war in Ukraine.

Olaf Scholz and China's President Xi Jinping meeting in Beijing in 2022
Chancellor Olaf Schlolz is less hawkish against China than his Green Party coalition colleaguesImage: Kay Nietfeld/dpa/picture alliance

Too many cooks in the China kitchen

The lack of agreement is certainly not uniquely German. Taken together, the European Union rivals China as an economic power, but China is governed by a single ruler, whereas the EU is a confederation of 27 sovereign states strung together by an authority in Brussels. Formulating policy as a single bloc often proves difficult.

Underscoring this was French President Emmanuel Macron's own trip to China shortly before Baerbock's. He was joined by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. Macron's message could not have struck a more different tone.

Hinting at the great power competition developing between China and the United States, he advised his European partners to "avoid crises that are not ours." He warned of becoming a "vassal" to the US, which has been pushing its allies to adopt more a hawkish stance towards China.

Critics, including in Germany, slammed Macron for kowtowing to Chinese interests and forsaking Western ones, including those of France's own allies, while ignoring China's violations of human rights and international law. Yet his position is in keeping with his pet project of European sovereignty, a concept that foresees the EU forging its own foreign and security policy, which neither relies on US power nor always agrees with US interests.

Unlike Germany, France is a nuclear power that enjoys a veto on the United Nations Security Council. Historically, its leaders have shown less deference to American expectations, whereas Germany has often stuck closer to them — if not in action, then at least in words.

The US is itself still developing policy prescriptions for containing China to its liking, and it has interests in the Pacific that neither Germany nor Europe more broadly share.

In May, the G7 heads of state and government will pick up in Hiroshima where Baerbock and her colleagues left off in Karuizawa. As such, Scholz will take part, and China is likely to take a top spot on the agenda.

Whether he comes with a newly minted China strategy remains to be seen.

William Glucroft contributed to this report.

Edited by: Rina Goldenberg

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Jens Thurau Jens Thurau is a senior political correspondent covering Germany's environment and climate policies.@JensThurau
Volker Witting
Volker Witting Volker Witting has been a political correspondent for DW-TV and online for more than 20 years.