Beijing Policy Slowly Crystalizes Government in Berlin Classifies China as a “Systemic Rival”

Driven by its junior coalition partners, the Green Party and the FDP, the German government is adopting a tougher stance on Beijing. It wants to reduce economic dependence and strengthen relations with democratic states in Asia.
Social Democratic Party politician Olaf Scholz during a 2019 visit to the Forbidden City

Social Democratic Party politician Olaf Scholz during a 2019 visit to the Forbidden City

Foto:

Georg Ismar / picture alliance / dpa

Recently, a reporter with the weekly magazine published by Germany’s Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper asked Steffen Seibert, Angela Merkel's government spokesman of many years, which trips with the chancellor had particularly stuck in his mind. Seibert cited "the many trips to China" and gushed: "Full of megacities with insane motor dynamics, where you can physically experience the unleashed energy of this country." The former spokesman didn’t say a word about the dubious ways in which Beijing treats its citizens and neighbors and the rest of the world.

DER SPIEGEL 6/2022

The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 6/2022 (February 5th, 2022) of DER SPIEGEL.

SPIEGEL International

That fits with the policy that the Chancellery and the leadership of Merkel’s party, the center- left Christian Democratic Union (CDU), pursued for years toward the communist rulers. The repression of the Uyghur Muslim minority and the Tibetans, the treatment of opposition members, the attack on Hong Kong’s autonomy – Merkel preferred to address all of this behind closed doors. Trade was at the center of her China policy. Her government coalition agreement in 2018 with her conservative sister party, the Christian Social Union, and the center-left Social Democrats, even stated: "China's economic development is a great opportunity, especially for the German economy."

But the new German coalition government has announced that it will toughen its course toward the leadership in Beijing. The coalition contract between the center-left Social Democrats (SPD), the Green Party and the business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP) states that they will pursue cooperation with China, but "on the basis of human rights and applicable international law." This shift toward a more values-based policy came about primarily at the insistence of the smaller coalition partners, says Reinhard Bütikofer, a China expert and member of the European Parliament with the Green Party. "But the SPD foreign-policymakers have supported these principles," he says. "This was a welcome break with Merkel’s cozying up to Beijing."

Former German Chancellor Angela Merkel during a meeting with Chinese leader Xi Jinping at the G-20 summit in Hamburg in 2017

Former German Chancellor Angela Merkel during a meeting with Chinese leader Xi Jinping at the G-20 summit in Hamburg in 2017

Foto: JOHN MACDOUGALL / AFP

Initially, the Greens and the FPD weren’t sure whether SPD Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who is known for his wait-and-see attitude, would actually take a firmer stance on China. In his first telephone conversation with Chinese President Xi Jinping, the chancellor still emphasized, much to Beijing’s delight, that he wanted to deepen the partnership between the two countries. But the messaging now coming from Berlin government headquarters is unlikely to please the Chinese leader.

The German chancellor has already said he will not travel to the Winter Olympics, which open today in China. But that’s not the only thing he is trying to steer clear of. Scholz wants to hold consultations with the governments of India and Japan before his first meeting with the Chinese leader – either by video or in person.

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock also has no plans to visit China anytime soon. The ministry she heads is currently preparing a "China Strategy." In it, the German government will consider "China as a partner, a competitor and a systemic rival," a spokeswoman for the German Economics Ministry told DER SPIEGEL. The joint paper is intended to prevent different ministries from bickering over specific decisions the way they did in the past.

"The Chinese party state is increasingly exposing itself for what it is. There are no longer two opinions on that in the German government."

Reinhard Bütikofer, a member of the European Parliament with the Green Party

But the new consensus in Berlin is also related to Beijing’s increasingly aggressive posture. When the European Union imposed sanctions on a few low-level officials because of the oppression of Uyghurs in the Xinjiang region, Beijing responded by banning certain members of the European Parliament, including Bütikofer, from entering the country. "The Chinese party state is increasingly exposing itself for what it is," Bütikofer says. "There are no longer two opinions on that in the German government."

The Chinese trade embargo imposed on products from Lithuania after the country allowed Taiwan to open a representative office also helped to close ranks in Germany. The European Commission has proposed a new instrument to be used against coercive measures that authoritarian states use to change the policies of EU countries. Once in force, it would enable the EU to impose punitive tariffs against China or exclude Chinese firms from public contracts.

Another potential economic weapon against China is held by Robert Habeck, Germany’s economics minister and a member of the Greens. His predecessor Peter Altmaier of the CDU had tightened the Foreign Trade and Payments act, which now enables the government in Berlin to prohibit mergers – not only out of security considerations, but also if foreign entities want to acquire German companies in key industries.

China critics Robert Habeck, Anna Baerbock and Christian Lindner

China critics Robert Habeck, Anna Baerbock and Christian Lindner

Foto: Michael Kappeler / dpa

The Economics Ministry wants to strengthen the position of German companies in China. Officials there say they are working with China in the hopes of further market openings and fair competition. "We are also working on the EU level to further develop the EU’s trade policy instruments so that we can adequately address market and competition distortions where necessary," says a spokesperson for Habeck.

The attempt to adopt a more self-confident stance toward China is also a result of the experiences from the coronavirus pandemic. In the past two years, it has become dramatically clear how great the economic dependence on China has become. Supply chains have broken down because too few chips or other vendor parts were manufactured in China for export, or they were stuck in ports.

The German government has placed "global supply chains" on the agenda of its current G-7 presidency as one of five priority issues. Discussions are planned for the circle of Western industrialized nations, the spokesman says, on the issues of transport routes, communications and sustainable energy production. Sources in the Chancellery say these steps are being taken as a "counter-model to China’s New Silk Road Initiative."