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."
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.
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."
The problem with Steinmeier's attitude is that his quiet approach is sometimes barely perceived by dissidents around the world who pin their hopes on Western democracies. And even citizens in those democracies must ask themselves how much human rights are really worth if leaders in their own societies aren't vocal enough about violations of the same rights in the wider world. The German constitution regards human dignity -- and not just German dignity -- as unassailable. By its nature, the expression "human rights" implies a universal applicability.
Europe's history teaches us that a yearning for democracy developed because the bourgeoisie, as it became reasonably affluent, began demanding the right to security and participation in the political process. Will China necessarily follow in those footsteps? Or will the Chinese realize one day that a dictatorship offers them more affluence than a democracy? This would present a completely new challenge to the world's democratic nations. They would have to change their offensive stance -- in which they demand more human rights and more democracy -- to a defensive position, and they might have to explain to their own citizens why they are falling behind in the competition for wealth.
A more concrete challenge has already materialized. A few weeks ago, before resigning as Germany's vice chancellor, Franz Müntefering argued that a democracy had to consider the extent to which it can allow foreign corporations, especially state-owned Chinese companies, to gain influence over Germany's economy and society by buying their way into its industry. Müntefering's comments highlighted the fear that democracies could be undermined and changed by economically successful dictatorships.
Resisting the Asian Challenge
On a flight from the Chinese city of Nanjing to Tokyo in late summer, Merkel seemed to agree: She said it was clear to her that democracies could come under pressure if a country like China continued its rapid economic growth. Not every German, Merkel said, would agree that the right to vote is more important than the rise of earning power.
Merkel -- like the rest of her party -- is more concerned than Steinmeier about the Asian challenge. She and other Christian Democrats argue that Europe should join forces with the United States to prevent the combination of authoritarian government and an early capitalist economic system from spreading. China's rise to prominence, reads a CDU/CSU strategy paper, diminishes the appeal of liberal Western principles of order.
According to the document, the German government's Asia policy in recent years has been "too business-centric and too China-centric." The Christian Democrats want to see Germany cooperate more closely with democracies like India. "The relationship with China will not develop in a harmonic way," says Eckart von Klaeden, the CDU/CSU's foreign policy spokesman and one of the authors of the Asia strategy document.
The document has already made waves in China: Mei Zhaorong, China's former ambassador to Germany, says it expresses a "Cold War" way of thinking.
Beijing suspects Merkel wants to follow a foreign policy direction similar to that of the neoconservatives in the United States. For the Chinese leadership, the strategy document is proof that Germany's relationship with China will no longer be shaped by trade and investment, or friendship and exchange, but also by ideology. Just as Washington is making war in the Middle East in the name of democracy, the Chinese magazine Outlook wrote, Berlin plans to "impose the Western model of values" on the Far East.
The problem with Merkel's approach is that anyone looking to emphasize the strengths of their own system over the competition must put their views on public display. In doing so, they invite criticism, because their own strengths are usually someone else's weaknesses.
So Steinmeier's approach is more peaceful, at least on the surface. The debates over this divide are taking place in democracies, for the most part: To what extent is a velvet-gloved approach compatible with the fundamental principles of a democracy?
Embarrassing the Chinese
The Dalai Lama conflict has unfolded against this background. Beijing considers him an enemy of the state. Tibet has been part of China for centuries, in the government's opinion. Chinese troops invaded Tibet in 1950, and eight years later the Dalai Lama fled to India. The fact that he has long since given up his calls for an independent Tibet, and instead supports extensive autonomy for the region today, makes no difference to Chinese leaders. In their view, anyone who meets with "separatists" like him -- on official premises, no less -- is committing a political deadly sin, because in doing so he undermines the "sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country."
The Chinese ambassador to Germany, Ma Canron, told the Reutlinger General-Anzeiger that the meeting had offended the Chinese people -- adding that relations between the two countries have been "seriously damaged" as a result. With the Beijing Olympics only months away, of course, Chinese officials are nervous. They fear critics could use the games as a backboard for political attacks which could attract worldwide attention.
None of which means that receiving the Dalai Lama was a bad move. But it does suggest that high diplomatic skill should have been the order of the day. On that front, Merkel has failed. She didn't mention her meeting with the Dalai Lama during her trip to China. The word in Beijing is that German experts in the Chinese foreign ministry, including Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, are now keeping a low profile. Apparently Communist Party officials have voiced their displeasure with the experts for misjudging Merkel. On their advice, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao spent more time with Merkel than is customary for state visits, even taking a stroll with her through a park. That memory must be sour in Beijing by now.
Merkel's supporters reject the accusation that she should have mentioned the meeting with the Dalai Lama during her visit. They say it was impossible at the time, since details were still unclear. They add that Merkel's foreign policy advisor, Christoph Heusgen, gave the Chinese ambassador in Berlin sufficient advance notice and provided him with an account of the conversation the day after the meeting.
Foreign Minister Steinmeier, though, also felt blindsided. Merkel and Steinmeier discussed the meeting only three days before it was scheduled, during a debate over Afghanistan in the German parliament. Merkel apparently told Steinmeier that she had unfortunately neglected to notify him earlier -- although the real problem was a breakdown in communication between their two offices.
Still, it was too late to make changes. To emphasize the private nature of the meeting, Steinmeier recommended a reception at CDU headquarters or at a government guest house in Meseberg outside Berlin.
Truth and Consequences
The chancellor won't discuss whether arrangements for the visit were handled poorly. "Have I ever questioned whom China invites?" she said angrily to a group of advisors. If the leader of a world religion asked for a meeting, she said, there was no reason to turn him down.
The Chancellery asked the Chinese ambassador to provide proof to support the claim that the Dalai Lama is a separatist. It has yet to receive a response.
Members of Merkel's staff say Austria, Canada and the United States have all received the Dalai Lama. The chancellor doesn't believe her advocacy on behalf of human and civil rights contradicts German interests. On the contrary, she says, it encourages other countries to take Germany more seriously. But if the Chinese notice that the Germans are afraid of losing their next business deal, she claims, the Beijing leadership will feel emboldened.
But the Chinese have cancelled several meetings over the Dalai Lama controversy, including an annual dialogue between Berlin and Beijing over the rule of law and human rights. A planned trip to China by Finance Minister Peer Steinbrück has also been cancelled until further notice, and this cancellation eliminates an important meeting for the Deutsche Börse Group, the operator of the Frankfurt Stock Exchange, which had planned to sign a cooperative agreement with the Shanghai Stock Exchange.
Otherwise, consequences have been minimal. "We haven't noticed anything," Richard Haussmann, the head of Siemens in China, said last week. According to Haussmann, Merkel's meeting with the Dalai Lama will have "no significant consequences for our business." He is convinced that "China will remain an important partner for Germany in the future."
Merkel's staff is convinced that China needs Germany as much as Germany needs China. Without German technology, they argue, China's rise to world prominence would falter.
"Much depends upon how our partners in the European Union behave," says Gudrun Wacker, a China expert with the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin. French President Nicolas Sarkozy flew to Beijing on Sunday. Whether he will turn the German position into a European position, or whether he will merely seek to benefit from the tensions -- both diplomatically and economically -- remains to be seen.
Merkel, for her part, has no plans to make concessions. At some point she will return to discussing routine issues like Iran and Burma, or reforming the United Nations Security Council, with Chinese President Wen by telephone. In the process Merkel will more than likely address the strains in German-Chinese relations -- but probably as a secondary matter.
The truly difficult conversation Merkel faces will not be with the leader of a competing political system, but with a member of her own government, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, her partner in forging Germany's China policy. Steinmeier, as the freshly minted Vice Chancellor (a job that normally comes bundled with Foreign Minister), has gained new confidence. Even worse for the chancellor is the fact that, in a poll conducted last week to determine who respondents considered Germany's most important politician, Steinmeier edged out Merkel. This is far more irritating to the chancellor than her problems with China.
By Ralf Beste, Dirk Kurbjuweit, Andreas Lorenz and Ralf Neukirch
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan