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Courting China and abandoning the US?

von der Mark Fabian Kommentarbild App
Fabian von der Mark
May 24, 2018

German Chancellor Angela Merkel gets a warm welcome in China, while Foreign Minister Heiko Maas has to deal with an increasingly abrasive United States. These are testing times for Germany, says DW's Fabian von der Mark.

Angela Merkel and Xi Jinping
Image: Reuters/J. Lee

When German Chancellor Angela Merkel met Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in Beijing on Thursday, she was received with great fanfare, red carpet and all. In front of the press, both leaders stressed their commonalities. And not only that, China also announced it will lower its import duty on cars — good news for major exporter Germany, and for China, which loves buying German luxury vehicles. 

Read more: Germany and China — trade partners and competitors

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, meanwhile, recently met his United States counterpart, Mike Pompeo, in Washington. But he did not receive the kind of warm welcome that Merkel got in China. The US is unwilling to compromise. And President Donald Trump has increased the pressure on Germany, suggesting new import duties on cars, which would amount to an attack on Germany's major automobile industry.

von der Mark, Fabian
DW's Fabian von der Mark

Too big to fail?

So should Berlin switch sides? Turn its back on an increasingly aggressive Washington and focus on Beijing instead? That's out of the question. Germany's ties with the US are too important and close to sever. In fact, Germany depends on the US. You could say the relationship is "too big too fail," which is the message that Merkel and Maas have been sending in recent weeks.

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The two have emphasized the significance of the trans-Atlantic relationship — the shared history, cultural affinity and the mutual security provided through NATO. Even though Trump seems not to value the US-German friendship, Germany will not abandon its biggest ally.

The German government continues to honor the principles that previous US administrations have said they stand for in the past: multilateralism, free trade and human rights. Concretely, Merkel wants to save the Iran nuclear deal, wants WTO rules to be observed and climate change to be tackled. Maas has reiterated that European Union member states are in agreement on these issues, and that Germany stands by its word.

China and Russia side with EU

China and Russia also want to preserve the Iran nuclear deal, which proved so difficult to negotiate in the first place. It is crucial that all signatories, save for the US, are reiterating their commitment to the agreement. But apart from the deal, there are numerous issues where China, Russia and the EU are at odds.

Read more: US-German conflicts — what you need to know

Germany and China are in disagreement over a number of economic questions. China is making it hard for German companies to access its market, and both nations do not see eye to eye when it comes to intellectual property. Germany and the US agree that Chinese industrial espionage and bootlegging are a threat that must be countered. This common challenge could bring Germany and the US closer together.

Defending German national interests

These disagreements with the US and China make one thing abundantly clear: Germany must defend its own national interests. Maas did this in Washington, when he stressed German security considerations linked to the Iran nuclear deal, and explained how import duties would harm free trade. And while in China, Merkel has been championing the interests of the German economy — even though neither can expect Beijing or Washington to be particularly considerate of German interests.

Read more: European allies struggle to curb impact of US sanctions

Germany has realized that its relationship with the US has dramatically changed since Trump took office. As an apt metaphor, Maas has said the ocean dividing the two nations has now grown even more vast and rough. Trump is not an ally of Germany, but a competitor or possibly an adversary, and a trade war looks likely.

Even so, German-Chinese relations cannot make up for Germany's now somewhat frosty relationship with the US. Economic ties with China are promising, but politically, Germany and China would make strange bedfellows indeed, because for decades, Germany's strongest ally outside Europe has been in Washington. And if the US continues down its current path, China and Russia will not be the nations to fill the void. Instead, Germany must work even harder for a united EU, and endeavor to rekindle the trans-Atlantic relationship.

Merkel’s China trip