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China policy: Germany outlines new 'not naive' approach

July 13, 2023

Germany has unveiled its China strategy after fraught talks within the ruling coalition. The policy calls Beijing a systemic rival and also says the countries need to cooperate on climate change and other global issues.

Chinese and German flags in Beijing
Germany's coalition government agreed in 2021 that it needed a new China strategyImage: Kira Hofmann/photothek/IMAGO

Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock on Thursday presented the German government's framework for relations with Beijing at the Mercator Institute for China Studies in Berlin.

Critics say Germany has been too complacent about the emergence of new global threats, with authoritarian states such as China and Russia proving to be increasingly assertive.

What the foreign minister said

Baerbock said China had increasingly become a strategic rival in recent years. The country has experienced unprecedented economic growth, but it has also doubled down on authoritarianism — notably in its western Xinjiang province and in Hong Kong — and become increasingly assertive on a regional level.

"China has changed and therefore our policy towards China must change," said the foreign minister. "We are not decoupling from China, we merely want to derisk — that is minimize this risk," she said, noting the mistake that Germany had made in relying too heavily on Russian fossil fuels. 

"We neither want to hamper China's economic development nor our own," Baerbock added, but said Germany needed to diversify its economic ties.

"Companies that make themselves particularly dependent on the Chinese market will increasingly have to bear the financial burden of this risk and part of economic security is that companies ensure need to ensure that in their supply chains that they are aware of human rights and ensure that they are not being violated," said the minister.

Baerbock said this was important not purely for the sake of human rights, but to also protect Germany's own interests — including economic ones. 

The foreign minister also said it might sometimes be necessary to counter coercion by China — as was the case with economic pressure imposed on Lithuania over that country's Taiwan policy — at a European level.

Baerbock also said Germany would be pushing for China to forfeit its World Trade Organization designation as a developing nation, given that it is the world's second-largest economy.

What was included in the paper?

In its 64-page strategy, the government said it wanted to ensure that economic cooperation with China "becomes fairer, more sustainable and more reciprocal."

"China is Germany’s largest single trading partner, but whereas China's dependencies on Europe are constantly declining, Germany's dependencies on China have taken on greater significance in recent years," it said.

The German government plans to adjust export control lists as part of a Europe-wide initiative to protect new key technologies. China itself has recently imposed export controls on some metals used in semiconductors. 

The document remarked that Chinese espionage against Germany a growing problem, "particularly in cyberspace."

"We resolutely oppose any analog and digital espionage and sabotage activities by Chinese services and state-controlled groups in and against Germany."

The paper said it would ensure that German sovereignty was not violated by repression against Chinese citizens living in Germany.

It also clarified that Germany would not be deterred from doing business with Taiwan. Beijing considers the self-governing island as part of its territory. 

"Germany has close and good relations with Taiwan in many areas and wants to expand them," it said.

A look back at recent German-Chinese relations

China urges Germany to see progress differently

Responding to the paper, China's embassy in Berlin said it hoped Germany could see its development "rationally, comprehensively and objectively."

It took issue with the notion that China was Germany's rival, insisting that the country's were partners in dealing with challenges.

"Forcibly 'de-risking' based on ideological prejudice and competition anxiety will only be counterproductive and artificially intensify risks," it added.

What's behind Germany's China strategy?

A national security strategy unveiled last month already described China as a partner, competitor and rival, but the Foreign Ministry-fronted China strategy was expected to spell out what that means in more concrete terms.

The national strategy noted the dangers of relying too heavily on China. 

"We see that the elements of rivalry and competition have increased in recent years," that document said.

Speaking on the fringes of the NATO summit in Vilnius on Wednesday, Baerbock said the strategy would convey the message "that we want to live in peace and freedom together with all partners in this world, with all countries in this world — but that we're not naive at the same time."

Tensions within coalition

There are disagreements inside the three-party governing coalition in Berlin over the approach toward China.

The three parties agreed in their 2021 coalition contract that a strategy was necessary in order "to be able to realize our values and interests in the systemic rivalry with China."

Bearbock's Green Party advocates a tougher course toward Beijing than Chancellor Olaf Scholz's Social Democrats.

The discord was most recently on display after Scholz pushed through the sale of a partial stake in a container terminal at the port of Hamburg to a Chinese state-owned company, despite objections from the Greens.

rc/sms (dpa, AFP, Reuters)

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