Should other nations trust China

China (competence)

Ying Huang

To person

holds a doctorate in political science, research assistant at the Institute for Political Science and Sociology at the University of Bonn and project manager for "Data Infrastructure" as part of the project "Infrastructures of Chinese modernity and its constitutive global effects" funded by the Ministry of Culture and Science in NRW. [email protected]

The balancing act between values ​​and interests is the most important guideline of German China policy under Chancellor Angela Merkel (since 2005). [1] It aims to strike a balance between economic and strategic interests on the one hand and political values ​​such as liberal democracy, the rule of law and human rights on the other. However, this balance already presents itself as a challenge when dealing with the transatlantic partners, which makes it all the more difficult with a partner like China, whose values, system and social identity are so different from German and European ones. However, the pendulum between realism and ideology has been swinging more and more in the direction of interest politics in recent years, and the basis for this is above all the huge Chinese market.

In 2019, China became Germany's most important trading partner for the fourth time in a row. In that year alone, exports worth 96 billion euros went to China - a value that has more than tripled since 2007. [2] Fueled by economic growth, the importance of China on the global level is increasing, so that it remains questionable to what extent a balance can be achieved in the future if the global balance of power continues to shift. This conflict is reflected in the German perception of China. In recent years, not only in society, but also in politics and in expert circles, an increasingly critical attitude towards China has emerged.

This attitude was summarized in a policy paper of the Federation of German Industries (BDI) in 2019: China is still regarded as an economic partner for Germany, but is now also a systemic competitor because China's state-controlled economy is in stark contrast to the (social) market economy in Germany and Europe. [3] The EU agrees with the German perception and stated for the first time in March 2019 that China was indeed a cooperation and negotiating partner, but at the same time an economic competitor in the pursuit of a technological leadership role and a systemic rival with an alternative model of government. [4]

The balancing act is therefore becoming more and more complicated for Germany. The more important China becomes for Germany and the EU, the more difficult it will be to achieve a match between economic interests and human rights.

China policy before reunification

After the founding of the People's Republic of China in October 1949, it quickly established diplomatic relations with the other, newly founded communist state, the GDR. The bilateral relations were strongly dependent on the Sino-Soviet relations, because, unlike Beijing, East Berlin could not pursue an independent foreign policy. [5] When Sino-Soviet relations gradually broke down from the 1960s onwards due to ideological rifts, conflicting interests and border conflicts, bilateral relations between the GDR and China also cooled.

The deterioration in Sino-Soviet relations, coupled with the US-Chinese détente, in turn opened the door for the Federal Republic of Germany to establish diplomatic relations with China in 1972. This made it easier for Bonn to access the Chinese market. Bilateral relations reached their peak between 1978 and 1989 through a combination of economic, technical and financial cooperation.

For US-American and thus also for West German foreign policy, China was an antipole to the Soviet Union. [6] However, with the end of the East-West conflict approaching, China lost this strategic importance and the focus shifted to the economy. This development was overshadowed in 1989 after the suppression of the student movement in Tiananmen Square by the conflict over the human rights issue. Diplomatic relations between Bonn and Beijing were not discontinued, but the relationship cooled significantly. [7]

From excess of values ​​to excess of interests

"Tiananmen" led to the international isolation of China due to a variety of economic sanctions. It also sparked a directional debate within Germany, in which the value component - triggered by the human rights issue - was above the foreign trade component.

Normalization was only achieved in 1992 when the federal government refrained from linking human rights and economic issues in dealing with China and emphasized the "one-China policy". In addition, a year later, the Federal Government's Asia Concept emphasized the particular economic importance of China, despite the critical human rights situation. The applied "silent diplomacy" only temporarily led to relaxation, because now one had to deal with the increasing domestic political pressure. The Bundestag, which was still critical of China, passed the Tibet resolution in 1996, accusing the Chinese authorities of serious human rights violations and discrimination against the Tibetan population. In addition, there was talk of a "Tibetan government in exile" and thus contradicted the traditional one-China policy. The government under Helmut Kohl (1982–1998) was under pressure from two sides, as China demanded political restraint on the Tibet issue. [8] A middle way was not evident, the human rights question was ultimately put back one more time in favor of the foreign trade interests of the federal government.

The government under Gerhard Schröder (1998–2005) initially tried to listen to domestic political criticism and to emphasize human rights policy. Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer in particular was an advocate of a value-based foreign policy strategy - a position that in the years that followed would often lead to disagreement within the federal government. His reception of the Chinese dissident Wei Jingsheng strained bilateral relations between the two nations in the first year. In 1999 the situation eased again with the "apology trip" by Schröder, who traveled to Beijing as a representative of the EU to apologize for the NATO attack on the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. In contrast to his Foreign Minister, the Chancellor represented a strongly economic foreign policy. During his almost annual visits to China, he was usually accompanied by a large business delegation. In addition, the so-called rule of law dialogue was introduced, which was probably Schröder's most important initiative for bilateral relations and played a key role in expanding economic and political relations. The rule of law dialogue should be a platform in which sensitive issues such as human rights are dealt with. As a result, the value policy was "excluded" from the official meetings, so that one could concentrate on the common economic interests.

Together with French President Jacques Chirac, Schröder also tried to lift the EU arms embargo against China. Although this mission failed due to resistance from the USA and the lack of unity within Germany and the EU, mutual trust and bilateral relations between Germany and China were further expanded. Foreign policy at that time was a "top priority" and was mainly developed in the Chancellery instead of the Foreign Office. [9] Fischer, with his human rights-based China policy, faded more and more into the background. [10] China's global role continued to develop and the economic relationship developed into a strategic partnership.

Thus, both the Kohl government and the Schröder government initially tried to meet domestic and public demands for a value-oriented China policy, but both governments ultimately saw the economic importance of the Chinese market in bilateral relations with China. The attempt at a value-oriented foreign policy ended in an excess of interests for both.

The pendulum swings

With a clearly negative attitude towards the lifting of the EU arms embargo, Merkel distanced herself from Schröder's economically focused foreign policy and signaled a change of direction in China's policy. During her first three visits to China, she openly discussed the importance of human rights, which caused bilateral relations to fluctuate. The fact that she was the first German head of government to meet the Dalai Lama in the Chancellery in 2007 also made the change of direction clear to the German public. As a result, it not only increased its reputation in German and international society, but also strengthened its foreign policy profile vis-à-vis its own coalition partner. The SPD - mainly represented by Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier - continued to advocate "quiet diplomacy" in dealing with China and wanted to continue Schröder's line, [11] which repeatedly led to disagreements within the federal government. However, this subsequently also led to a balance in German foreign policy, because Steinmeier's diplomatic efforts and Berlin's clear commitment to the one-China policy eased the conflict with China that had been triggered by the reception of the Dalai Lama. Merkel subsequently decided not to meet with him again in order to avoid conflicts with the coalition partner, the Chinese government and the German business associations.

In the Asia strategy of the CDU / CSU parliamentary group of 2007, however, a critical view of Beijing is predominant. The Union assumed that China was increasingly asking the West about the systemic question and that its alternative model of political order would challenge Germany's economic and political interests. [12] For this reason, attempts were made to strengthen cooperation with democracies in Asia and to refrain from focusing on China.

The following year there was further unrest in Tibet; The scandal surrounding the symbolic torch relay through Tibet before the start of the 2008 Summer Olympics also tensed the situation between the two nations again. The tension only eased in 2010 when Merkel made a fourth trip to China during her second term in office. This fourth trip was the starting signal for another change of direction in German China policy and laid the foundation for the next few years. Both states published a joint communiqué [13] to fully promote the bilateral partnership. In addition, trade cooperation agreements worth more than four billion US dollars were signed to further expand economic cooperation. In view of the challenges at the time, Beijing promised "trust in the euro", support in overcoming the euro crisis and closer cooperation on climate protection.

Since 2011, the strategic partnership has gone one step further with several government consultations between the two countries. This government dialogue of the highest order is only conducted with particularly close partners; In 2014 he upgraded the strategic partnership to a comprehensive strategic partnership. Since then, Germany and China have regarded each other as long-term partners who have built up mutual political trust. The comprehensive strategic partnership pursued the goal of benefiting from mutual development and continuously deepening the existing dialogue and cooperation formats at government level. [14]

On the 45th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations, the mutual relationship reached its climax in 2017, despite all the differences of opinion on the human rights issue. Both the Chinese support at the G20 summit in Hamburg and the handover of a pair of pandas [15] for the Berlin zoo contributed to further deepening the partnership. Both countries shared the common conviction that in times of global uncertainty they would maintain and strengthen the multilateral world order and strengthen their cooperation both in the cyber field and in the fight against international terrorism. With the increasing instability of the transatlantic relationship, bilateral relations took on global dimensions. While the US pursued a policy of containment towards China, the German government mainly advocated further integration of China into a rule-based international order. [16] Germany is trying to stay out of the territorial disputes in the South China Sea to a large extent and avoid going it alone against China in order not to burden relations despite the conflict of interests.

Chancellor Merkel has taken the path that is typical of German federal governments - her China policy has become more pragmatic since her second term in office. After a tense and strongly value-oriented China policy, she gradually switched to an interest-oriented China policy on her fourth visit to China. Over time, a systemic challenger became a comprehensive strategic partner. Merkel initiated government consultations and worked with China to integrate the country into the international order and to jointly address global challenges.

Current challenges

In 2016 and 2017, numerous companies in Germany were Chinese investors accepted. But when the leading robot manufacturer Kuka was taken over by the Chinese conglomerate Midea in 2016, Chinese direct investments in Germany came under increasing criticism. The Federal Government therefore tightened the Foreign Trade Ordinance in 2018. It was feared that the takeover would be able to secure jobs and open up new markets in the short term, but would have a negative effect on the competitiveness and innovative strength of German industry in the long term due to the loss of core know-how. Furthermore, the state control of takeovers of security-relevant companies in the field of armaments or critical infrastructure for national security and order became necessary. [17] This was confirmed in December 2020 when the German government stopped the takeover of IMST GmbH - a specialist in 5G, satellite and radar technology - by the Chinese armaments company Addsino, because this could threaten the security and technological sovereignty of Germany in the area of ​​future mobile radio systems. Chinese investments therefore became a tightrope walk for Germany. On the one hand, one does not want to disconnect from the economic dynamics of China; on the other hand, one does not want to lose one's competitive advantage and future viability through the outflow of German know-how.

Another challenge arose from the one operated by China since 2013 Silk Road Initiative. Initially welcomed because of the improved connectivity and the opening up of third markets, it quickly brought about conflicts of interest. The tenders for projects of the Silk Road Initiative were too opaque for the federal government, and the USA saw the establishment of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) as a serious competitor to the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank. Accordingly, the German participation in the AIIB was viewed negatively by the USA and became a point of contention between the two nations.

The "16 + 1" cooperation format caused tension in the EU. [18] This is a platform created in 2012 to promote cooperation between 16 Central and Eastern European countries and China, which includes eleven EU countries and five EU accession candidates. Critics of the format feared an increasing dependence of some countries on China and an increased potential for conflict within the EU if some EU member states strengthen their negotiating position in Brussels through their close economic and political relations with China. In particular, the Western European countries excluded from the platform saw the format as an intervention in their geopolitical space and an undermining of the EU, which is why German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel even spoke of a "one-Europe policy" in 2017. [19]

Also the 5G infrastructure expansion by Huawei puts current China politics to the test. The federal government vacillates between economic interests in the expansion of infrastructure and security interests in the core infrastructure and in data protection. Critics fear that Huawei could create a back door for espionage and sabotage through its telecommunications products. However, there is no rest for a weighing of interests. China threatens Germany with "consequences" [20] if Huawei is not taken into account in the 5G expansion, and the USA is demanding that Germany position itself in the Sino-American rivalry. The federal government has not yet made a decision.Although the importance of the openness of the European as well as the Chinese market for foreign network equipment providers is emphasized [21] and efforts are made at the national level to define security requirements for the 5G expansion, [22] one would like to refrain from making one's own decision in this precarious situation . Instead, one looks to Brussels and would like all EU member states to be coordinated in order to enable a common approach to 5G expansion.

2020 brought the Corona pandemic new challenges with it. The non-transparent behavior of the Chinese local government at the beginning of the pandemic, the death of the doctor Li Wenliang as the first whistleblower and the dispute over the origin of the novel coronavirus sparked international criticism. China got the pandemic under control by means of strict measures and recovered with economic growth of 4.9 percent as early as the third quarter of 2020. Because of this rapid recovery, the Chinese market remained essential for German industry: 20 to 25 percent of all exports go to China from the auto and machine industries, which suffered severely from the pandemic and the measures taken. As a result of the pandemic, Germany also purchased medical products from China, and dependence on the Chinese market increased. At the same time, China advertised its own political system and contrasted it with democratic systems in crisis management, so that the systematic struggle with the West was rekindled. In order to avoid becoming too dependent on China, the German government published the Indo-Pacific guidelines in September 2020, [23] according to which it would like to strengthen and diversify its economic and political relations with Asia.

The EU's new China strategy

The EU's China policy shows some parallels to Germany's China policy. As an independent institution, the EU has maintained diplomatic relations with China since 1975 and upgraded them to a strategic partnership in 2003. Like German-Chinese relations, EU-Chinese relations are also shaped by the balancing act between values ​​and interests. Since the EU does not want to lose China as an important economic, political and geostrategic partner, it has to constantly maneuver over conflicting questions about democracy, rule of law and human rights as well as a number of economic, market access, regulatory and trade issues.

With the "16 + 1" format, however, Beijing created its own alternative format for the central and smaller Eastern European countries. Instead of negotiating directly with the EU as the world's third largest economy, China can just as easily negotiate with each member state individually. The lack of consensus within the EU and the incoherence of the EU's China policy make it clear that the EU is not a state compared to China and cannot bring its economic and strategic position of power to the negotiating table to the same extent.

In order to change their position and create more coherence, a strategy paper was published in 2019 according to which European policy on China should be reoriented. China was no longer viewed as a purely economic partner, but also as an economic competitor and systemic rival. But while the idea of ​​rivalry increased in Europe, China saw the EU as a necessary global partner and a countervailing power to the dominance of the USA. EU Council President Charles Michel even warned in 2020 that Europe must become a global player so that the continent does not become a playing field in the Sino-American rivalry. [24]

A crucial step was taken in 2020 when China first became the EU's main trading partner. After seven years of negotiations, the EU and China agreed on a joint investment agreement. The biggest challenge in the negotiation process was convincing China to remove barriers to market entry for foreign investment and to tackle unfair trade and economic practices such as industrial subsidies and forced technology transfers. In order to bring the agreement to a conclusion before US President Joe Biden took office, China made important concessions with regard to market access and competitive conditions as well as the controversial issues of forced labor and climate protection. Nevertheless, some European observers remain skeptical because the outcome of the negotiations falls short of European expectations. [25] Although the agreement could not solve all problems, the German government counts it as one of the greatest successes of the German EU Council Presidency. Merkel pushed the agreement forward decisively to create equal market access for German companies, but it remains questionable how the agreement will affect transatlantic relations and whether the concessions will outweigh the remaining problems.

Conclusion and outlook

The international order is currently undergoing a profound change that is presenting German foreign policy with major challenges. Since state and party leader Xi Jinping took office in 2012, China has appeared more self-confident on the world stage in terms of foreign policy. With its economic and political rise, China has found it easy to defend its national sovereignty and territorial integrity. The claim to power in the South China Sea, the new Silk Road initiative and the Hong Kong policy show an active, for some even offensive and aggressive path that will make it more and more difficult for Germany to assert its values ​​and interests. Beijing will not make any concessions on Hong Kong, Taiwan and Tibet, so the human rights issue will continue to lead to conflict. The asymmetrical position of power between Germany and China makes foreign policy on equal terms hardly possible. However, through European integration, German China policy is acquiring a lever through which Germany's relatively weak position of power in dealing with China can be compensated. However, this lever only works if the EU acts as a unit and develops a coherent policy on China.

With regard to the intensified strategic rivalry between the US and China, Berlin has to rethink its position. On the one hand there is the transatlantic community of values ​​and security, on the other hand the economic, political and comprehensive strategic partnership with China.

Germany (like the EU) is still dependent on the US and NATO for security policy, but the past few years have shown that transatlantic relations are not always reliable. Joe Biden's presidency is linked to hopes of renewing the transatlantic partnership, also with regard to a strategic China policy. Both Foreign Minister Heiko Maas (SPD) and the CDU / CSU parliamentary group in the Bundestag recently sent signals to this effect. [26]

On the one hand, China has developed into an indispensable cooperation partner in overcoming global challenges. On the other hand, China's position has hardly changed in recent years. It is true that concessions have been reached in the investment agreement and in climate protection, but the Chinese government's offensive foreign and domestic policy will bring further challenges in the future. Since reunification, Germany has tried to strike a balance between values ​​and interests, but has always been subject to China's unyielding position.

The Sino-American rivalry ultimately also offers the EU, and thus Germany, an opportunity to raise its profile in world politics and to enhance its own position. Much depends on the post-Merkel era and the new federal government. The increasing dependence on the Chinese market and the increasing criticism of Merkel's policy of restraint will, if history repeats itself, again lead to excess values ​​of the next federal government and thus to a course of confrontation.