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Did Merkel fail to hold China to account?

Richard Walker
February 18, 2021

Debate has intensified about Angela Merkel's efforts to tighten ties with China. The question is whether Merkel ushered in an era of smart engagement — or one of dangerous dependency on an authoritarian superpower.

Chancellor Angela Merkel welcomes the Chinese President Xi Jinping
Merkel's approach to China is increasingly being challenged as failing to meet the momentImage: picture-alliance/ZUMAPRESS/O. Messinger

Berlin, December 2020: Angela Merkel was in defensive mode, facing critical questions in parliament about her flagship initiative on China, a sweeping investment treaty between the European Union and Beijing.  

"We're seeing in Hong Kong that China doesn't even abide by treaties subject to international law," said Margarete Bause, the Bundestag human rights spokesperson for the Greens — the party emerging as Germany's most critical of China.  

Merkel's answer was a window into her whole approach to China, which is increasingly being challenged as failing to meet the moment.

"We observe with great concern that, in Hong Kong at the moment, the ‘one country two systems' issue is very fragile, to put it mildly," Merkel said. "And, with respect to this contradiction between the values we share and the interests we have, again and again we have to weigh the tradeoffs as we take political decisions."

Merkel's bold beginning  

It was a far cry from the early days of Merkel's chancellorship. Six months after taking office, she went to Beijing in May 2006 with a bold new message. Unlike her predecessor Gerhard Schröder, she would speak out in public about human rights — and actively try to bring about change. 

Did Merkel fail on China? (E05)

"We will not only follow the development of civil society in China, but also use forms of dialogue to try to develop it in a direction that means more openness and more freedom," she said. 

These were optimistic times. "There was still a great deal of hope that China was on a path towards a less authoritarian state," Noah Barkin, a senior visiting fellow at the German Marshall Fund and one of the leading observers of German-Chinese relations, told Merkel's Last Dance, a DW podcast series exploring the chancellor's legacy during her final year in office.  

Dalai Lama visit a 'slap in the face'  

Early on, in 2007, Merkel made her boldest move of all, inviting the Dalai Lama for a meeting at the chancellery in Berlin.  

"It was seen in Beijing as a real slap in the face," Barkin said. "Diplomatic relations with Berlin were essentially frozen for six months."  

Reflecting on the meeting later, Merkel said it had triggered a healthy debate. "The good thing is that we ... will never allow values and interests to enter into unacceptable competition with each other, but that we always try to find the right balance," she said.  

But, Barkin said, the experience did have an impact: "I think that was sort of a wake-up call for Merkel. She shifted her tone in public when talking about human rights." 

The onset of the global financial crisis tilted the balance between values and interests further.   

"China's economy became a vital crutch," Barkin said — one that German firms turned into something more like a catapult. Germany's exports to China soared more than 70% in the two years from 2009 to 2011. And, as the financial crisis morphed into the euro crisis, China became a valued investor in eurozone bonds.  

"I think this colored Merkel's view of China," Barkin reflected. "She still talks about China's help during this time of existential crisis for Europe."

Dalai Lama meets Angela Merkel in Berlin
Merkel received a lot of criticism for hosting the Dalai Lama in Berlin in 2007Image: AP

Strategic Germany-China partnership 

As economic links grew, so did political engagement. The first full-scale intergovernmental consultations between Germany and China occurred in 2011, with Prime Minister Wen Jiabao coming to Berlin with an entourage of ministers. 

Wen hinted at a quid pro quo. "China hopes with all its heart to take a direction, with Germany, where big countries respect each other so we can create a win-win situation," he said.   

For Barkin, the message was clear: "When China talks about respect in bilateral relationship, what it really means is that it doesn't want other countries to interfere, as it says, in internal affairs." 

Xi doubles down  

The power balance in the relationship was shifting fast — in China's favor — when, in 2012, a new leader rose to the top in Beijing. Xi Jinping would go on to shape a new era, doubling down on authoritarianism.  

Xi's clampdown on political freedoms in Hong Kong and repression of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang have shattered any remaining hopes that China was on a path toward political opening. And China's growing assertiveness has raised the prospect of a confrontation with the United States that could define this century. 

Merkel's last move  

Despite these concerns, Merkel has pushed ahead with strengthening economic ties, culminating in the investment deal reached by the European Union and China at the end of 2020.  

For Merkel, this was about securing a better deal for EU companies doing business in China. But it brought her a barrage of criticism — not just for brushing off human rights concerns, but for ignoring a plea by the incoming Biden administration to wait and consult, and thereby granting China a diplomatic victory in outmaneuvering the trans-Atlantic partnership. 

Barkin suggests that this was a conscious move by Merkel. "I think there is a desire to avoid a second Cold War. She's clearly determined to play a moderating role in the US-China confrontation to prevent the isolation or containment of China, and try to bind it into the global rules-based order." 

Joe Biden and Xi Jinping
Critics say Germany will have to pick sides between the US and ChinaImage: Lan Hongguang/Photoshot/picture alliance

Germany's dual dependency 

Should the confrontation between the US and China continue, Germany may find its position untenable: dependent on the US for its security, dependent on China for its prosperity.  

"I think it's become increasingly difficult to sit on the fence," Barkin said. "There will be a series of very difficult choices for countries like Germany." 

What's next? 

It is a choice that may fall to Merkel's successor — expected to be either Armin Laschet, who is the newly elected chair of her Christian Democrats, or Markus Söder, currently the state premier of Bavaria.  

Neither looks likely to seek a significant change to China policy. But they may find they are forced to change course — either by their likely coalition partners, the Greens, or by geopolitical realities.  

How did Merkel do? 

The optimism of Merkel's first trip to China in 2006 is long gone. But, Barkin said, it was embracing Beijing so firmly in 2009-11 that set Germany on its current course. "I think Merkel has clung to what many people now see as an antiquated approach to China," he reflected.  

Though such criticism is growing, Merkel herself has shown no sign of changing course in her final months in office.

"I don't consider it very sensible to look back 15 years and consider the results of today," she told reporters in 2020. "I believe that it is both right and important to seek good strategic relations with China. But you can't have any illusions — you have to measure things against reality."