Merkel in China Berlin's Cozy New Relationship with Beijing

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Part 2: A Strengthening Partnership


Germany could end up running away with the bone as the third dog in this conflict. During her conversations with Chinese leaders, Merkel has often been told that they don't want a bipolar world dominated by China and the United States. But the Chinese government does have an interest in seeing Europe retain its strength as an important international political player.

In this context, the Chinese see Merkel as their most important European partner. Beijing considers her to be a politician who keeps her promises, unlike former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, for example. As he did during her last visit, Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao will also accompany Merkel when she visits a second Chinese city. After Beijing, she will travel to the nearby city of Tianjin, Wen's hometown. It is a rare diplomatic honor.

It was also Wen who pushed to have the intergovernmental consultations take place before the change in leadership this fall. He apparently wanted to ensure that the talks become established before Beijing's new leaders assume office.

Many Chinese look to Germany as a role model for internal reforms. Despite the euro crisis, the country boasts historical record values in all key economic indicators, concludes the first "Germany Development Report" completed at Tongji University in Shanghai. The study, the results of which were reported throughout the country by the party newspaper People's Daily, will reanalyze the situation in Germany every year from now on.

Remaining Problems

As good as relations between Berlin and Beijing may have become, the remaining problems are also considerable. In addition to the critical human rights situation, the biggest strain on the partnership is Chinese attempts to hijack German know-how.

During Merkel's last visit to China, German business owners complained to her about the Chinese authorities' notorious "certification process" for German goods and plants. They described it as an especially perfidious form of institutionalized industrial espionage.

German investors in China constantly complain about how brazenly their local partners siphon off Western knowledge. For instance, Volkswagen recently learned that the state-owned auto giant FAW, VW's joint venture partner in China, is apparently copying transmissions and engines for its own models. But rather than jeopardize its position in China, its most important overseas market, the German automaker has declined to level public accusations against the Chinese.

Classic espionage also continues to be a strain on relations. Berlin is irritated by the audacity with which China spies on both German companies and the government.

Indeed, although Germany and China are economically dependent on each other, they remain bitter competitors. And as members of the German parliament, the Bundestag, experienced last week, they are also two partners with completely different systems. The German-Chinese Parliamentary Friendship Group had planned to fly to China two Saturdays ago for meetings with Chinese politicians, trade-union officials and business representatives.

On August 14, four days before the group's scheduled departure, SPD parliamentarian Johannes Pflug sent an urgent email to his fellow Bundestag members. The Chinese parliament, the National People's Congress, had informed him that it was "not in a position" to issue the invitation to the group of German lawmakers.

The Chinese offered no explanation, but the Germans believe they know why they were disinvited. The Chinese were apparently offended that Bundestag President Norbert Lammert had not met "officially" with the chairman of the National People's Congress in Berlin but, rather, had merely invited him to an official dinner.

In addition, the Chinese authorities apparently wanted to prevent the German lawmakers from meeting with representatives of the Uyghur ethnic minority. The Germans now expect the government to address the issue in Beijing this week.

It isn't the only problem Merkel is expected to solve. A group of some 30 China correspondents with German media organizations, including SPIEGEL, wrote a letter to Merkel asking her to address deteriorating working conditions for foreign journalists during her visit "at the highest level" and to request that China offer them the same working conditions to them that Chinese journalists enjoy in Germany.

"The police and state security officials continue to interfere with our work," the letter reads. According to the journalists, the authorities openly threaten to refuse to extend visas when journalists report on "sensitive" issues and either prevent or strongly discourage sources from speaking with them.

Uncertain Futures

These problems suggest that it is still unclear whether Merkel's China diplomatic offensive will be a success. No one can predict how reform-oriented the future Chinese government will be. The gap between rich and poor is widening, and the economy is no longer growing as strongly as it was a few years ago. In fact, it is quiet possible that a worsening economic situation will lead to more repressive domestic policies.

This would also affect foreign policy. At the moment, the Germans are betting that Beijing will become more open to Western arguments in the UN Security Council. But this is still little more than a hope, given that the Chinese leadership has not shown any evidence of a new posture.

"We talk about partners," says one German official, "but exactly when the Chinese will become true partners is in the stars."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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