Steinmeier in China: Small projects for a big partner | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 09.04.2016
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Steinmeier in China: Small projects for a big partner

This time it is the German foreign minister who is in Beijing. One could almost describe the atmosphere as warmhearted - Germany's constant close contact with China is paying dividends, Dagmar Engel writes.

The minister was coughing. The ascent at the Heimifeng Forest Park, 1,500 kilometers (900 miles) south of Beijing, is steep and offers spectacular views - as long as it is not raining. But it is raining, and the clouds smother the green mountainside. That is better for the cough though; the rain keeps down dust pollution. Nevertheless, the pollution is still one-and-a-half times higher than what the World Health Organization deems a health risk.

Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier (left in photo) brought the cough with him from Germany, but the sound is appropriate for his surroundings: Air pollution is a central domestic political issue in China - and one that Germany can help with. The traveling exhibition that Steinmeier opened at the Beijing University of International Business and Economics may not fulfill curatorial demands for a modern presentation, but it does offer a chance to showcase commonalities between two very different partners: "Our countries are the most populous and economically powerful countries on their respective continents," Steinmeier said in his none-too-humble opening remarks. He used those words to lead into what has become somewhat of a mantra of German foreign policy, namely that strength means responsibility. "We must work to bring about peace and solve conflict beyond our own regions," Steinmeier said.

For one example, Steinmeier and his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi (right in photo), have agreed on modest cooperative projects for Afghanistan: one to train miners and another in disaster prevention. This is a giant step for China, where the basic principle of nonintervention seems to be softening. And the Germans are hoping that this may provide a break in Syria as well: China recently named a special representative for Syria. "We cannot find solutions without the help of large international partners," Steinmeier said. He stopped short of mentioning that he hopes China will use its influence with Russia when it comes to the conflict, as well as within the UN Security Council.

Partnership means trust

China maintains closer contact with Germany than with any other EU member state. Steinmeier and Wang have met so often over the past year that their staff have lost count of the exact number of times (somewhere between eight and 12). Two weeks ago, President Joachim Gauck was here, and in mid-June half of the German government will travel to Beijing for consultations. The "comprehensive strategic partnership" that both countries agreed to last December goes beyond purely bilateral economic interests. Wang sees Germany as a leader within the EU when it comes to common projects aiding third countries. That seems like an exercise in building trust. Beijing has apparently come to the realization that, beyond its economic heft, it cannot play its strengths on the path of globalization without trust.

On this particular visit, however, it is clear that trust is not one of China's strong suits. The domestic situation is characterized by nervousness, European observers in China say. The restructuring of the economy from quantity to quality is creating a lot of losers among laborers, and the leadership's proclaimed fight against corruption threatens the other end of the social spectrum. "One must first clarify the facts," Wang said in response to a German journalist's question about the government's handling of the Panama Papers leak. China had previously brushed off all criticism as baseless.

The standard theme for every German cabinet member and president is human rights. And each has his or her role to play. President Gauck names names; Foreign Minister Steinmeier does not. Still, he said he discussed difficult subjects with his partners, human rights among them. Later, members of his delegation reported that he met with human rights activists, lawyers and the relatives of an imprisoned lawyer in the evening. Halfway up the path at Heimifeng Forest Park stands a temple that people are supposed to visit. There, Steinmeier asked his companions if the ascent to the very top would bring good luck. Their answer: Perhaps, but even if it does not bring good luck, it will bring movement - which is not a bad image for a visit either.

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