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Germany's new China strategy: What Beijing thinks

Yuchen Li in Taipei | Wesley Rahn
July 14, 2023

The Chinese government has accused Berlin of "protectionism," and said Germany's new strategy will prove "counterproductive" and "only exacerbates global divisions."

Olaf Scholz next to Xi Jinping with German and Chinese flags in the background
Beijing has said working with China 'is an opportunity, not a risk'Image: Kay Nietfeld /AFP

Hours before Germany released its long-awaited China strategy paper on Thursday, which outlines a policy of "de-risking" from China, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin warned that "viewing China as the source of risk is a fatal miscalculation."

"In today's world, a dismissive attitude toward international cooperation is the greatest risk, stagnation the greatest uncertainty. China is an opportunity, not a risk," he said.

On Friday, Wang appeared before the press once again. The German government's China strategy had seen the light of day, and Wang's words were clearer and more focused.

The Foreign Ministry spokesman called the strategy "counterproductive," while accusing the German government of "protectionism."

"It only exacerbates global divisions. China hopes that Germany will take a comprehensive and objective view of China's development," Wang said.

What has Germany said about de-risking?

Although Germany is China's largest European trading partner, the strategy paper warns that China's economic strategy is geared toward "make it less dependent on other countries, while making international production chains more dependent on China."

The paper also emphasizes how China uses its economic power to achieve political goals.

Beijing's relations with many countries in the Indo-Pacific region and beyond "have deteriorated significantly as a result of this robust approach," the paper says.

China strategy gives only 'pointers'

"Everyone benefits from competition when it is based on fair rules. It is not our intention to impede China’s economic progress and development. At the same time, de-risking is urgently needed," the paper argues, adding that Germany wholly rejects "decoupling" economically from China.

In response, the Chinese Embassy in Berlin warned that "forceful de-risking based on ideological bias and competitive anxiety will only backfire." It added that China and Germany need to build bilateral relations by "enhancing political mutual trust."

"China is a partner, not a rival. Many of the challenges that Germany is currently facing are not caused by China," the embassy said in a statement.

Germany an important European partner for China

In light of continued geopolitical tensions between China and the US, Beijing is placing a lot of value on its relationships with Germany and other European countries.

The fact that the new Chinese Premier Li Qiang came to Germany on his first trip abroad is a strong signal of Beijing's commitment to this partnership, which has been traditionally characterized by close economic exchanges.

In June, Premier Li visited Berlin and met with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, in a bid to persuade German business and government leaders to deepen the bilateral cooperation with China.

Men in suits stand near a robot
During his visit to Germany, Chinese Premier Li Qiang (center) visited the headquarters of Siemens in BavariaImage: Ding Haitao/Xinhua News Agency/picture alliance

During his visit, Li told the CEOs of German industrial giants that "lack of cooperation is the biggest risk, and lack of development is the biggest insecurity," China's state-run Xinhua news agency reported.

"This report is likely to disappoint Chinese diplomats and leaders because it does not fulfil the objectives of Li Qiang's lobbying efforts," Wu Qiang, an independent academic and political commentator in China, told DW.

Germany's balancing act with China

Wu added that Germany is carrying out a "massive balancing act," reconciling strong economic ties with standing up to China's geopolitical ambitions and addressing its checkered human rights record.

The 61-page strategy paper echoes the German government's oft-repeated position that China is simultaneously "a partner, competitor and systemic rival," while remaining an "essential partner" in solving global challenges like climate change.

At the same time, the strategy directly addresses concerns over China aggressively pursuing its foreign policy interests, noting that Beijing is trying in "various ways to reshape the existing rule-based international order," with implications for global and European security.

In recent years, Germany has repeatedly criticized Beijing's expansive territorial claims in the South China Sea, military aggression toward Taiwan, the crackdown on democratic freedoms in Hong Kong and the ill-treatment of Uyghur Muslims in China's western Xinjiang region.

China: Economic friend or foe?

"China has changed. As a result of this and China's political decisions, we need to change our approach to China," the paper says.

Beijing has said it firmly opposes foreign interference in China's internal affairs on issues like Taiwan, Xinjiang, Hong Kong and alleged human rights abuses.

Since Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Berlin has also been wary of Beijing's unwavering close ties with Moscow.

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock also told reporters on the sidelines of the NATO summit in Vilnius on Wednesday that the China strategy paper will send a signal "that we are not naive."

"I did not expect it to be so direct and straightforward," said Zsuzsa Anna Ferenczy, an assistant professor at the National Dong Hwa University in Taiwan and a former political adviser in the European Parliament.

"It's very honest, but it explains why: because China is no longer the same," she told DW, adding that the strategy is strong on paper but "we will have to see how it plays out in reality."

However, "it is wishful thinking that Beijing will be open to criticism," she said.

Edited by: Srinivas Mazumdaru

Wesley Rahn Editor and reporter focusing on geopolitics and Asia