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Germany's Scholz defends China trip amid controversy

November 3, 2022

The German Chancellor is visiting China. While the visit has sparked some controversy, Germany's Automobile Association has signaled its support.

Chinese leader Xi Jinping and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in Hamburg in 2017 duriing the G20 summit when Scholz was mayor of Hamburg
Friday will be Scholz's first trip to Beijing since becoming chancellorImage: Carsten Rehder/dpa/picture alliance

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz published an op-ed Thursday in which he defended his forthcoming trip to China with a German trade delegation comprised of business leaders.

"It's been a good three years since my predecessor last visited China," Scholz began, referencing former German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The op-ed was published jointly by Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and Politico.

He added that those were, "Three years during which the world has fundamentally changed — due to the COVID-19 pandemic on the one hand, and Russia's war against Ukraine on the other, with its severe repercussions for the international order, our food and energy supply, the economy and prices worldwide."

What did Scholz say?

Scholz wrote, "It is precisely because 'business as usual' is no longer an option in these circumstances that I'm traveling to Beijing."

He pointed to five considerations guiding his decision-making process. First, he said China's political system is undergoing a transformation.

"The outcome of the Communist Party Congress that just concluded is unambiguous: Avowals of Marxism-Leninism now take up a much broader space than in the conclusions of previous congresses," Scholz observed.

At the conclusion of the Party Congress last month, Chinese President Xi Jinping was rewarded with a third term. At the same time, his immediate predecessor Hu Jintao, who supported a more collective form of decision making at the top, was escorted off the dais by ushers in a widely discussed incident. Analysts point to the events to suggest the country has made a more authoritarian turn.

Speaking from Taiwan, Reinhard Bütikofer, a German Greens member of the European Parliament, called the chancellor's one-day trip "probably the most controversially debated visit in the country for the last 50 years."

A changing China in a changing world

Scholz said the stability of the Chinese Communist Party and China's national security are increasingly interpreted as one and the same by President Xi and the coterie of loyalists around him on the newly named Politburo's Standing Committee.

"As China changes, the way that we deal with China must change too," he wrote.

Russia's war on Ukraine has also decisively shifted global affairs, Scholz said, with Russian leader Vladimir Putin's threats to use nuclear weapons "brutally jeopardizing the international peace and security order."

Scholz said China signed on to a joint statement from the UN condemning the use or threatening the use of nuclear weapons.

"No country is the 'backyard' of another," Scholz wrote before pivoting, "new centers of power are emerging in a multipolar world, and we aim to establish and expand partnerships with all of them."

In the Czech Republic, the liberal newspaper Hospodarske Noviny published an editorial Thursday that criticized Scholz's trip. "Only eight months after, under pressure from Russia's invasion of the Ukraine, he announced a turning point in foreign and security policy," business appears as usual, the editorial said. 

It went on, "Scholz is going to China as if nothing had happened. The policy of change through trade had already failed with regard to Russia."

The German chancellor will be the first European leader to visit China since Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Trade makes money

Scholz's critics charge his visit is primarily motivated by business and economic considerations, as China is Germany's largest trading partner. Scholz conceded in his op-ed that this was very much the case.

"A significant amount of trade between Germany and China concerns products where there is neither a lack of alternative suppliers nor a risk of dangerous monopolies. Instead, China, Germany and Europe benefit equally," he wrote.

Recently he has come under fierce criticism for a decision to allow Chinese shipping firm Cosco to acquire a stake in one of the terminals at the port of Hamburg despite the disapproval of numerous ministers in his government who opposed the deal.

Germany's Cosco deal: A risky dependency?

The president of the German Automobile Association (VDA) Hildegard Müller signaled support from the trade group for Scholz's China visit. "The current business with China secures a large number of jobs here in Germany," she told the Funke newspaper group.

"China is currently supplying us with important raw materials that we do not have ourselves and have not secured via alternative trade agreements," Müller noted, adding China is also the largest market in the world for German auto manufacturers.

'The movement of contradictions'

"The world is developing through the movement of contradictions; without contradiction, nothing would exist," Scholz recalls Xi saying earlier this year in Davos.

To the chancellor, this means "not avoiding difficult issues in discussions with one another. These include respect for civil and political liberties, as well as the rights of ethnic minorities, for example in Xinjiang province."

He added, "The tense situation around Taiwan is also of concern."

Scholz elaborated, "Like the US and many other countries, we pursue a One-China policy. Part of this policy is, however, that any change to the status quo must be brought about by peaceful means and mutual agreement."

To close, Scholz argued that Sino-German relations must succeed for Sino-European relations to be on good footing as well.

"German policy on China can only be successful when it is embedded in European policy on China," the chancellor wrote.

In Beijing Thursday, a day ahead of the trip, China's Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian was quoted in the press as saying, "We are partners, not rivals."

ar/nm (AFP, AP, dpa)