German- Chinese consultations: A new „German problem“?

German- Chinese consultations: A new „German problem“?

While under the government of Helmut Schmidt and Helmut Kohl, as well as the US governments at that time, engagement policy towards China was dominant, the Schröder / Fischer government even thought of expanding the new G8 with Russia into a G9 with China and wanted for this Eurasization of the G7 to get a permament seat in the UN Security Council and a reform of the UN, Schröder also saw China and Russia as a top priority, from which Fischer was largely kept out, especially since Schröder also advocated lifting the EU arms embargo against China and a rule of law dialogue instead of human rights dialogue, the new Merkel / FDP government emphasized more human rights and values in the beginning. The Dalai Lama was also still welcomed in Western countries, which sparked violent protests from Beijing and put Merkel on the cover of the Global Times as a “witch”. With the economic and military rise of China, especially after joining the WTO, this changed, the Dalai Lama was no longer welcomed anywhere in the West and relations between Germany, the EU and China deepened more and more and with little interruption. Merkel Germany in particular has annual consultative conferences with China, which is rarely the case with other countries.

 After Trump saw China as the new competitor for the world powerstatus of the USA, he started a trade war and put pressure on Western allies to join his decoupling strategy and to choose between the US and China, the EU and Germany reacted with a few tactical concessions. In a sort of compromise triangle, the EU perceived China as a “partner, competitor, systemic opponent” and adopted an Indo-Pacific strategy that aimed to diversify economic and political relations in the Asian region. At the same time, it wanted to rely more on ASEAN and Germany  emphasized that it do not want a trade war or even decoupling ala Trump. After Biden was elected, the Asian states signed the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) free trade agreement with China, and Germany and the EU also pushed ahead with an investment protection agreement with China, regardless ofand without  discussions with the new Biden administration. So this week the regular German-Chinese consulation meeting took place again.

The German-Chinese consultations were never festivals of public exchange of blows. But this time critical comments were almost entirely absent. It sounded like the start of Merkel´s farewell tour. „You know that these will be my last government consultations,“ said Chancellor Angela Merkel (CDU) on Wednesday morning at the beginning of the sixth consultations of this kind between Germany and China. “But I hope that it won’t be the last government consultations between China and Germany.” Just the fact that Merkel believed she had to express this hope was striking. Is it really that bad about relations between Beijing and Berlin? The fact that the Chancellor will make this statement at her last official meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron in the autumn can in any case be ruled out. The consultations were only held digitally. In front of the camera in Berlin, Merkel said that she imagined that she was sitting in China. The last time she was in Beijing was in autumn 2019 and paid a short visit to the capital, Wuhan, of all places – before things started pandemic. Critical comments were almost entirely absent Even in their analogous times, the German-Chinese government consultations were not a festival of public exchange of blows. But at least at one press conference between Merkel and Prime Minister Li Keqiang there was the opportunity to force a few statements on critical issues beyond the possible emphasis on good cooperation. They were almost completely missing on Wednesday. Combined with all sorts of technical difficulties, only one file of the initial statements from Li and Merkel was sent, followed by two messages later. One of them announced a communiqué from the Foreign Ministers. When asked, however, it was said that the comminique would not be finished on Wednesday.

The government consultations on the German side were accompanied by demands from the Bundestag to openly address human rights violations in China. For example, the human rights spokeswoman for the FDP parliamentary group in the Bundestag, Gyde Jensen, expected Merkel to make it clear to the Chinese side that they had to „comprehensibly refute the accusation of genocide against the Uyghurs“. Beijing must agree to an independent United Nations observer mission. Similar comments came from almost all political groups. In particular, Beijing’s sanctions against EU parliamentarians from Germany and other countries who had expressed themselves critically were taken up. The SPD foreign politician Nils Schmid said: „If MEPs are sanctioned, one cannot expect something to happen with the investment agreement.“ And Merkel? We know even less than usual what she said internally. Only so much in public: The exchange includes similarities, „but sometimes also different points of view“. She mentioned „disagreements“ when looking at the situation in Hong Kong. And: „I would like that we could get the human rights dialogue going again as soon as possible.“ The government in Beijing has always given her high credit for the fact that the Chancellor has always only voiced very soft criticism of human rights violations for the sake of dialogue. The fact that she traveled to China more often than to almost all other non-European countries was always benevolently emphasized in Beijing. But this time the Chinese were also tight-lipped.

Li Keqiang twice insisted that no one should interfere in China’s internal affairs. Although he uttered the word “cooperation” thirteen times in the opening statement, as if he wanted to ban the triad of “partner, competitor, systemic rival”, which is now also being used to outline China’s policy in Germany. Li did not even try to fill the „cooperation“ with content. Unlike Merkel, he refrained from posting the EU-China investment agreement on the credit side. According to Berlin, both sides advocate “recognition of vaccination certificates to facilitate travel”. So far, China had only promised such reliefs for people who have been vaccinated with Chinese vaccines. From the point of view of the German economy, the hurdles when entering China are the most pressing issue, according to a survey by the German Chamber of Commerce in China. The editor-in-chief of the party newspaper „Global Times“ finally made it clear what China was also interested in at the meeting: sending a message to Washington. “Neither Germany nor the EU will decide to decouple from China. If the US decouples from China, European companies will take over the market share of American companies, ”Hu Xijin wrote on Twitter. In Beijing, foreign policy is currently only viewed through the filter of Sino-American relations

In the Biden administration, disappointment about Berlin is widespread. It is not just sticking to the German-Russian Nord Stream 2 project that has a negative impact on the transatlantic relationship. A hundred days after Joe Biden took office, there was disappointment in foreign policy circles in Washington over Germany’s immobility. Diplomats in the American capital point out that things are not going well between Washington and Berlin, and not just because of the Nord Stream 2. In the central strategic questions of Western foreign policy, Russia and China Berlin takes a own stand. John Kornblum, the former American ambassador to Germany, expresses what diplomats who do not want to be quoted suggest: In the Atlantic world there is a new „German problem“. However, for the USA the Greens could be a game changer as Annalena Baerbrock in an interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung declared that Germany and the EU should take a tough line against China and Russia and focus on human rights and values.

Global Review asked the Team Barbrock about its new China policy:

“What do you think about US President Joe Biden’s proposal to create a transatlantic New Silk Road as a counter-project to China, to create a digital and analog infrastructure in Europe that creates jobs, generates growth, revitalizes Europe’s promise of prosperity, and the West has its own vision and there is a concrete project which connects the 16 plus 1 group to the EU again and roll back this Chinese new backyard in Europe?”

The team Baerbrock outlined its China policy as follows:

„The transatlantic partnership is and will remain an important pillar of German foreign policy. The nationalism pursued by US President Trump and his “America First” policy of the past four years have permanently damaged relations. For this reason, we must use the new beginning promised by the Biden administration to strengthen and deepen the transatlantic cooperation on the basis of our common values and goals. We see the project of the new transatlantic silk road proposed by President Biden as one of many possibilities. Because the fact is: We are in a global system competition between democratic and autocratic systems. In this competition, the decisive factor is whether a good cooperation between Europe and the USA is possible. A common strategy is needed in dealing with China. The fact that the German government pushed ahead with the EU-China investment agreement at the end of last year rightly irritated the new US government, but also other partners. The rivalry with autocratic states goes far beyond economic policy issues; it is a substantial question of democracy, human rights, the rule of law and ecologiiazation facing illiberal, repressive systems. It is therefore essential that we bring these values back into the focus of our business and our deeds and anchor them firmly there. The EU internal market as well as the US market are powerful levers for defending and strengthening human rights and basic democratic values. Therefore, the EU-Asia connectivity strategy should be closely dovetailed with the American Blue Dot Network. Because this is an opportunity to tackle the big issues and global problems of our time in a multilateral framework and based on our democratic values.“

Whether the consultative meetings would also take place under a black- green or green-black government or even a Federal Chancellor Baerbrock is questionable. And even if the CDU/CSU remains the stronger coalition partner, unlike the Schröder/Fischer era the Greens will not have as the FDP 5% and not much to say, but 20% and much more weight. or would the Greens demand a permanent consultation between China and Germany on ecological and human right questions as precondition to continue the existing consulatations. Doubtful if China would accept this. And the next question is if the investment protection agreement will still be signed under Merkel. Interesting that Merkel wants to resume the human rights dialogue, since recently there was only the rule of law dialogue. But the CCP doesn’t seem interested at all. The other option was a coalition between the CDU/CSU/SPD and the FDP which from Beijing´s point of view would be preferable to strong green Chinabashers..

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