Four years ago, when German Chancellor Angela Merkel received the Tibetan leader the Dalai Lama in Berlin, China reacted with anger -- and German industrial leaders, worried at the possible loss of lucrative contracts with the emerging economic powerhouse, reacted with horror.
They had no need to worry this time around. The Chinese delegation that visited Berlin on Monday and Tuesday, where they took part in the two countries' first joint cabinet meeting, received a warm welcome. Merkel, borrowing the same words used by her guest, said that the visit of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao marked a "new chapter" in the strategic partnership between the two countries.
Human rights activists who had been pushing Merkel to be tough on China's track record were likely disappointed by the visit. Although the German chancellor talked of her pleasure at the release of the artist Ai Weiwei and other political prisoners and called for "transparent" legal proceedings, the focus of the meeting was very much on trade.
Merkel said that the two countries want to increase their annual bilateral trade volume to €200 billion ($284 billion) by 2015, up from last year's total of just over €130 billion. Wen expressed the hope that Germany and China might even double their trade volume within the next five years.
A Critical Look
The two leaders also signed a whole series of contracts -- 14 in total. Among them was an agreement for China to be the partner country for the Hannover Messe trade show in 2012 and the construction of a German consulate in the Chinese city of Shenyang. The two sides also pledged to work more closely together on issues of justice, climate control and renewable energies.
In addition, contracts were signed with German companies worth a total of €10.6 billion, including the purchase of 62 Airbus A320 passenger jets. Volkswagen also inked a deal with its Chinese partner FAW on the construction of a new factory in China while Daimler and Siemens also concluded investment deals with their Chinese partners.
The euro crisis was a further topic discussed at the summit. With roughly 26 percent of its currency reserves invested in euro-denominated assets, China has a major interest in seeing the currency remain stable. "If Europe has problems, we will lend a helping hand," Wen Jiabao said. If necessary, he added, China would buy up an appropriate amount of the sovereign bonds of euro-zone countries. Merkel, in turn, assured him that "we will take care of solidarity and solidity in the euro zone."
The Berlin visit was just one stage of Wen's European tour. Before coming to Germany, he met with British Prime Minister David Cameron in London and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Budapest -- and also signed billion-euro deals in those countries.
On Wednesday, German commentators take a critical look at the German-Chinese relationship.
The center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:
"Relations between China and the Europeans can be described using two key words: business and human rights. The Europeans leave geopolitics and big-picture strategy to the Americans. This is both shortsighted and naive. While we (Europeans) see free trade as something that is desirable from an economic standpoint, Beijing views economic issues as a strategic lever to be used for its geopolitical positioning. …. Now, Premier Wen Jiabao is traveling through Europe with his checkbook, buying up sovereign bonds from debt-stricken countries, having China's state banks grant low-interest loans or promising new investments for companies that China has invested in. China, which is already the US's largest creditor, is also becoming a powerful economic player in Europe, and not only as a market for our goods."
"The debt-ridden Europeans are naturally happy that there is still someone out there who is willing to invest money on the Continent, but they should also be aware that China is not acting entirely selflessly. The Chinese are not just interested in acquiring Western technology, but also in increasing their political influence. The thorny issue of human rights is already almost being drowned out in the chorus of voices loudly singing the praises of the economic opportunities in the huge Chinese market. The stronger this dependence becomes, and the more confident Beijing gets, the quieter those critical voices will become."
The left-leaning Die Tageszeitung writes:
"It was a visit of warm words and embraces. This closeness is astonishing, to say the least. It demonstratively prioritizes economic interests and deliberately ignores the realities of China."
"The red-carpet treatment sends out the wrong signal. The Beijing politicians will understand it as a license to throw as many people as they want into prison, knowing that the Germans will respect them anyway. It should now have become clear to everyone that it is only possible to exert pressure on China if the EU speaks with one voice. Brussels needs a common China strategy. But instead of that, Merkel and Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle have been competing to see who can suck up to Beijing the most -- just as David Cameron did earlier in London."
The conservative Die Welt writes:
"In diplomatic terms, nothing represents more respect and deeper understanding than a joint cabinet meeting. We only have such contact with partners with whom we share a special history, shared experience and values, such as France or Israel. Can the same be said of China? Hardly."
"For us, individual rights are an indisputable basic right. In China they are ranked behind the power of the state. There, the principle of non-interference in the affairs of other countries is placed higher than human rights. … A genuine strategic partnership would need joint strategic goals. But let's be honest: On a number of significant points, we see the world very differently from China's leadership."
The business daily Handelsblatt writes:
"Relations between China, the new global power, and Germany, the industrial powerhouse, look good. But if you take a step back and consider the bigger picture, the dangers of having too close a relationship with China become clear. The German government is playing into the hands of the Chinese, whose strategy is to surround themselves with a range of weaker allies, so as to prevent the formation of a common front against Beijing."
"Germany has recently proved itself to be surprisingly independent on the world stage. On the issue of the war in Libya, for example, Berlin has held back, in contrast to its partners. China needs exactly these kinds of friends: countries that are respected internationally, with a certain amount of weight, but which are not too firmly embedded in their alliance systems. For Germany, showing such flexibility in its foreign policy creates new possibilities. But this increases the risk of it becoming an instrument of Chinese interests. In this respect, the West's strength is largely based on its being united."
The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:
"Partly because China's prime minister seems to currently be the man with the apparently inexhaustible pocketbook, there is no unified EU policy on China. Everyone wants to sell as many planes, cars, railways and power plants as possible. Everyone is targeting China's huge market … . Wen Jiabao knows that his country is being wooed by the Europeans, and that it does not need to make any concessions. In Berlin, he made this clear with his cool remark that a strong euro is also in China's interest, with the result that his country would extend a 'helping hand.'"
"Whether the American 20th century will now be followed by the Chinese 21st century is still uncertain. But its economic power, demographics and fairly stable authoritarianism suggest that it will."