Back in 2007, German Chancellor Angela Merkel was happy to provoke the Chinese leadership by receiving the Dalai Lama in Berlin, a gesture that led to an icy period in German-Chinese relations.
Five years later, Merkel's approach to China is all about harmony and the grand gesture. By traveling to China with an entourage of cabinet ministers and industry representatives, Merkel was eager to show how much Berlin values its relation to Beijing.
One situation has developed in the meantime may have played a key role in Merkel's change of heart: the euro crisis. Merkel is hoping for Chinese help in getting the euro zone out of its current woes. After all, Beijing is sitting on massive foreign exchange reserves, currently estimated at $3.2 trillion. The Europeans hope Beijing can be persuaded to continue investing in Europe or in EU bailout funds.
Premier Wen Jiabao assured Merkel that he would support her efforts to solve the crisis through further Chinese investments in European sovereign bonds and companies -- with the precondition, he added, that the investments are safe and profitable.
Confidence in the Euro
During her two-day visit, Merkel sought to promote confidence in the monetary union, emphasizing that the Europeans had the political will and means to keep the euro zone together. But she also asked for patience, saying that the crisis could not be solved "with a single blow."
The visit also marked a new directness on the part of the Chinese when it comes to discussing the euro crisis. Sources in the German delegation told the news agency DPA that there had been "no-holds-barred" discussions about the crisis during a dinner attended by Merkel, German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schńuble and leading Chinese finance officials. Earlier, Wen had expressed his incomprehension about why the Europeans were taking so long to implement the necessary steps to fight the crisis.
German observers were critical of Merkel's apparent reluctance to tackle the issue of human rights during her visit. The German chancellor did, however, ask the Beijing leadership to improve working conditions for foreign correspondents after German journalists in China wrote a letter claiming they had been harassed by authorities.
On Friday, German commentators mull over evolving German-Chinese relations.
The center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:
"Economic relations between the two countries have evolved spectacularly. China is today one of Germany's closest economic partners and is interested in German technology. Germany's China policy is largely determined by economic interests. In turn, China regards Germany as the leading power in Europe and is treated as such. That is flattering -- and is also dangerous."
"No matter how dynamically the relation develops in terms of trade and investment, there can never be a 'special relationship' between the communist People's Republic and Germany, a democratic country in the heart of the European Union, at least not in the sense of the Anglo-American connection. The two countries' ideas about the state and society, and about the rule of law and human rights, are too far apart for that. We should not delude ourselves: The fact that the chancellor is being viewed, both in Beijing and in Washington, as the true voice of Europe in international relations may flatter Germany. But not all of Germany's European partners will be pleased. Instead, it confirms their suspicions that Germany wants to be dominant and go it alone, no matter how nonsensical those ideas are."
The conservative Die Welt writes:
"During her visit to China, the chancellor had her hands full trying to keep an important future investor from pulling its capital out of the euro zone. ( ) Merkel's unyielding commitment to keep Greece in the euro zone and to the reforms which will hopefully soon begin to bear visible fruit was music to the ears of the Chinese. Both the German chancellor and the Chinese premier are concerned about their own political credibility. But they are even more concerned about the long-term credibility of the euro."
"In the precarious global economic situation, certain statements about the euro which are prompted mainly by electioneering, are gaining a lot of weight. This also applies to those voices in Bavaria's Christian Social Union who are calling for Athens to be kicked out of the euro zone. Certain people in Bavaria might not realize that a butterfly flapping its wings in Munich could cause a hurricane in China. But when the CSU, as the sister party of Merkel's Christian Democratic Union, no longer supports the chancellor's course, it could have a grave impact, given that it comes at a time when China is about to see a change in leadership. ( ) Nobody should believe that German politicians have a monopoly on trying to gain short-term influence with the help of euroskeptic posturing."
In a guest editorial for the financial daily Handelsblatt, Frank Sieren, a German expert on China, writes:
"Wen said he was 'personally very concerned' about the euro zone and explained to Merkel how she could solve the crisis: Europeans must restore confidence by finding a balance between frugality and economic stimulus. In short, the EU can not destroy economic growth through austerity measures. That is closer to the American position than to the German one."
"Even just five years ago, no Chinese premier would have ventured to express himself so clearly about another country. Wen's remarks are not only an expression of the new self-confidence of the rising global power. They also show the dilemma that Beijing faces. On the one hand, China needs Europe as a market for its goods and the euro as a counterweight to the US dollar. On the other hand, the Chinese leadership can't risk too much in supporting the euro. It already has enough trouble because it has invested the bulk of its foreign exchange reserves in US government bonds. ( ) Under the current circumstances, Beijing is undoubtedly more interested in an economic stimulus package than rigorous austerity."
The left-leaning Die Tageszeitung writes:
"Forget the days when Angela Merkel received the Dalai Lama at the Chancellery for 'private talks' and found herself attracting the wrath of the Chinese leadership as a result. That was five years ago. The German chancellor now travels to China every year ( ). Never have relations between Berlin and the authoritarian regime in Beijing been as excellent as they are at present."
"But all the mutual economic interests should not allow the human rights dialogue with China to be forgotten. A meeting with Chinese environmental activists stood on the agenda of Merkel's two-day visit. She also criticized the deteriorating working conditions of German foreign correspondents in China. But at least three meetings were solely in the interests of German business. That is disproportionate."
"Germany currently enjoys a high standing in China. ( ) Merkel could have used this opportunity to speak out in favor of human rights. The fact that she did not can be attributed to the changes that the current crisis has caused -- or perhaps to changes in Merkel herself. What would the Dalai Lama make of it all?"
The left-leaning Berliner Zeitung writes:
"The technology nation of Germany and the growth market of China are not only dependent on each other as business partners -- they also need each other politically. Merkel is in China to promote confidence in the euro and try to persuade Beijing that greater involvement in the rescue measures are in China's interest. In conflicts such as Syria or Iran, the chancellor will encourage Beijing to come out of Russia's shadow. Such discussions are pleasant for Merkel, because the same things that are criticized as weak leadership back home can be seen as skillful diplomacy here."
"But too much Sino-German harmony is also not a good thing. The formal pomp of the government consultation is no substitute for taking a clear position on issues of conflict. These include the discrimination that German companies have suffered in China, despite all the enthusiasm for economic cooperation, in the form of being excluded from markets, predatory pricing or patent infringements. It also includes China's restrictions on human rights, the rule of law, freedom of expression and press freedom."
"It is beyond question that in a partnership one needs to make concessions. But at what point does the willingness to compromise become self-denial?"
-- David Gordon Smith
As a side note, while the Chinese people know they have different cultural values from Germany, they respect the German's culture and way of life, and especially the open way with which the Germans have apologised to Europe and [...] more...
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