German-Chinese Relations Pressure Growing on Merkel to Fix Squabble with China

A diplomatic squabble over a meeting between Angela Merkel and the Dalai Lama has chilled relations between Berlin and Beijing. But behind the arguments lie two fundamental ideas about how democrats should contend with dictators.

Pressure on German Chancellor Angela Merkel mounted this week when the head of the most powerful German industrial lobby, Jürgen Thumann, called for more pragmatism in her dealings with China. "After the tension of the last few weeks we need constructive dialogue," Thumann told the Financial Times Deutschland on Tuesday. "I am confident that the German government will adhere to a China policy that is based on partnership and mutual respect."

China's Premier Wen Jiabao gave German Chancellor Angela Merkel fancy diplomatic treatment in Beijing last August -- before he knew about her upcoming chat with the Dalai Lama.

China's Premier Wen Jiabao gave German Chancellor Angela Merkel fancy diplomatic treatment in Beijing last August -- before he knew about her upcoming chat with the Dalai Lama.

The remark was more than just a backhanded slap from a big economic interest group. One of the most important questions of German diplomacy hangs in the balance: How should Germany deal with an economically powerful dictatorship?

The temperature in German-Chinese relations has "dropped almost to the freezing point," wrote the publication Welt-Kenntnis(World Knowledge), which is published by an institute run by the German foreign ministry. "How could the chancellor have done something so despicable," said an outraged Chinese diplomat at a reception given by the German ambassador in Beijing, Michael Schaefer. A jazz orchestra played Dave Brubeck's "Take Five" in the background, but the Chinese diplomat wasn't in the mood to relax.

The "despicable act" was an hour-long meeting that German Chancellor Angela Merkel granted to the Dalai Lama in her own office last September. The visit was called a "private" meeting, but it quickly became political.

The visit not only damaged relations with Beijing; it has also drawn criticism within Germany's grand coalition government from Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) and their rival Social Democrats (SPD).

At first Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder -- both Social Democrats -- rapped the chancellor for taking an unpragmatic moral tone toward countries like China and Russia. The chancellor struck back in an interview last Wednesday with the tabloid Bild. "As chancellor," Merkel said, "I decide with whom I meet and where I meet them. I would like to see everyone within the government standing squarely behind this position, otherwise China's respect for us can hardly be expected to grow."

But the SPD -- which sees itself as almost equally entitled to the chancellorship as the chancellor herself -- refused to back down. Merkel would be well advised, said Social Democratic leader Peter Struck, "to avail herself of the expertise of the foreign ministry and its minister (Steinmeier)."

Germany's politicians are back in campaign mode, and this time their antics look more inappropriate than ever. On the one hand, the quarrel does weaken Germany's position toward China. On the other hand, the underlying issue is far too important, and too fundamental, to be subject to partisan bickering.

At issue is how Germany should interact with a dictatorship. Also at issue is the recipe for a foreign policy that can address the sweet and sour aspects of a liberalizing Communist state.

Interdependence rising (click to enlarge).

Interdependence rising (click to enlarge).

What China brings to the table is its vast economic strength, which is gradually paying off in political power. China is also an important buyer of German exports, as well as a potential ally in crisis situations and for international negotiations.

Germany needs China, which explains Berlin's normally congenial relationship with Beijing. But the Chinese government also shows a general disregard for human rights and continues the brutal suppression of Tibetans, who revere the Dalai Lama as their religious and political leader.

Germany, as an export powerhouse, derives a growing share of its wealth from China. But Germany is also a democracy, which forces its government to consider whether to promote democracy and human rights in other countries, both for the people in those countries and out of respect for its own principles.

Until now, Germany has largely been spared this sort of dilemma. The world's socialist dictatorships have lacked the economic power China has today. The need to engage China forces Berlin to find and establish its own position in a new world order.

Speak Softly, or Carry a Big Stick?

Behind all the squabbling, two basic positions have emerged.

Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier represents the first position: He rejects the idea of competition between a democratic Western model and an authoritarian Asian model. He recognizes the challenge from Asia, but he hopes to find a solution in peaceful coexistence rather than confrontation.

"We can no longer assume, as a matter of course, that the Western-European culture is unquestionably accepted as the universally valid guideline," Steinmeier said in a speech in Potsdam outside Berlin in September.

Germany faces a choice between "fearful isolation and the path of courageous revitalization," for Steinmeier. He warns against defining conflicts of interest with China -- over the protection of intellectual property, for example -- as "cultural conflicts," insisting that such rhetoric only increases the "risk of escalation."

Steinmeier argues for a relaxation of tensions and qualifies the Western world's claim to global leadership. "The essence of the world will not depend on the SPD as a global force, on the German foreign minister or on a German chancellor," he said in a speech at SPD headquarters in Berlin in July. He thinks the global balance of power is dramatically shifting, and he says, "It is important to understand that European values and ideas can no longer be foisted automatically on other parts of the world, as was possible in some phases of the past."

Steinmeier believes Germany should not overestimate its strength. Asia's rising powers do not share the values and worldviews of the West, he argues, nor should the West presume to impose its ideas on Asia.

This doesn't mean that Steinmeier, when traveling in Asia, makes a wide berth around sensitive topics like protections for the political opposition. During a tour through Central Asia last year, he launched into a dispute with the post-Soviet leaders in five capitals over respect for human rights, the advantages of civil rights and the temptations of opening up their countries to the West. He presented his hosts with lists of political prisoners and informed them that aid from the European Union would come with conditions attached.

Nevertheless, Steinmeier prefers a low-key approach with little fanfare -- one that allows his counterparts to save face. At his party's annual convention he referred to Merkel's approach, with its public criticism and her meeting with the Dalai Lama, as "shop-window politics."

He was even more critical in Potsdam in September, when he said: "I, at any rate, do not believe that the Chinese reality depends on the approval of the German press."


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