Olaf Scholz’s trip to China could repeat Germany’s mistakes with Putin, critics fear
Scholz will travel alongside a delegation of business leaders, and the economic focus seems ominous to some observers – a little too similar to former Chancellor Angela Merkel’s mercantilist approach to foreign policy, which cemented Germany’s dependence on cheap Russian energy and left Berlin painfully exposed when relations with Moscow soured during the war in Ukraine.
There is now a broad consensus in Europe on the need to rethink relations with China. But some allies say Scholz appears to be out of step. Most alarming, they say, was his willingness to allow the sale of a stake in a German port terminal to a Chinese company, despite warnings from German intelligence and furious opposition within his cabinet. Scholz is also set to authorize a Chinese takeover of a German microchip company.
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“There is a small shock across the continent. And it serves China’s interest in dividing Europe,” said Bonnie Glaser, Asia program director at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
“There are also concerns in Washington,” she said. “The United States feels this is a time when we all need to be aligned.”
Scholz touted a zeitenwende, or “turning point,” in German foreign and defense policy since the start of the war in Ukraine. He said the invasion, along with changes in China itself, forced a fundamental shift in the German government’s strategy toward Beijing. He is, however, known as a cautious leader. And with a recession looming, he doesn’t seem keen on radically disrupting Germany’s relationship with its biggest trading partner.
Writing in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on Wednesday, the Chancellor rejected the notion of “decoupling” from China and instead spoke of eliminating “risky dependencies”. He said he intended to pressure Chinese President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang on reciprocity in areas such as market access and intellectual property protection.
Although the German government said coronavirus restrictions would make it difficult to hold meetings with activists and NGOs that are usual for European leaders on such trips, Scholz pledged not to “ignore controversies”. , including “respect for civil and political freedoms and the rights of ethnic minorities”. minorities”, China’s threats to Taiwan and its tacit support for Russian aggression in Ukraine.
Under Xi, China has become more authoritarian at home and more assertive on the world stage. He has led a brutal crackdown on Uyghurs and other Turkish minorities, crushed dissent in Hong Kong and raised the specter of military force to take control of Taiwan.
Scholz’s critics have questioned the message of approval that a trip to Beijing could convey in the wake of Xi’s nomination for a third term, securing his position as China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong.
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In Germany, allowing Chinese shipping giant Cosco to acquire a stake in a port terminal in the northern city of Hamburg seemed like another “gift for China to create a decent atmosphere”, said Roderich Kiesewetter, a Christian Democrat in the Foreign Affairs Parliament. Committee.
Last month, six German government ministries expressed objections to the port deal. German intelligence chiefs have also issued stark public warnings of the dangers of Chinese investment in the country’s infrastructure and businesses. “Russia is the storm, but China is the climate change,” said domestic intelligence chief Thomas Haldenwang. Bruno Kahl, of the German equivalent of the CIA, added that the security services were “very, very critical” of the sale of important infrastructure to China.
In the end, Scholz – who is also a former mayor of Hamburg – pushed through a compromise that allowed Cosco to buy a reduced 25% stake, instead of the previously planned 35%, which would have been a minority. blockage.
A senior State Department official told the Washington Post on Wednesday that the compromise followed a concerted engagement by U.S. officials in Berlin.
“The embassy was very clear that we strongly suggested that there was no majority Chinese interest, and as you can see when they adjusted the deal, there was no ‘there isn’t,’ said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss. delicate diplomatic talks.
The official noted that the majority stakeholders “remain the city of Hamburg and remain the port itself, which is important for the standards we are trying to establish between all G-7 countries and for the world.”
China’s Foreign Ministry responded angrily on Thursday to the suggestion that the United States played a role in the deal.
“Pragmatic cooperation between China and Germany is the business of the two sovereign countries; the United States should not attack it for no reason and has no right to interfere and intervene,” spokesman Zhao Lijian told reporters in Beijing.
The compromise also sparked widespread discontent in Germany. Both the Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs wrote protest letters, according to Der Spiegel. The acquisition “disproportionately extends China’s strategic influence over German and European transport infrastructure and Germany’s dependence on China,” the Secretary of State in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs wrote. Foreign Affairs, Susanne Baumann, to Scholz’s Chief of Staff.
A second US official suggested that the sale of the port “confirms that Scholz and his team really learned nothing from Russia-Ukraine.” The official, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the topic, said the arguments over the risks sounded like a “rehearsal” of the debates over Nord Stream 2, the controversial Russian gas pipeline that German officials have during for years described as a purely private business matter.
The potential takeover of Dortmund, Germany-based microchip company Elmos by a wholly-owned subsidiary of China’s Sai Microelectronics comes as the United States moves to cut China off from cutting-edge technologies through controls at export.
The German government has argued that the technology used by Elmos is outdated, but the decision still goes against express warnings from German intelligence services, the Handlesblatt newspaper reported.
Collectively, the actions have contributed to a sense of bewilderment and frustration with German leadership from partners such as the United States and other members of the European Union, who would like to see more coordination from Berlin.
“It is very important that the behavior of member states towards China… changes in a more coordinated than individual way, as China obviously wants,” EU trade chief Thierry Breton said on Monday. , in an interview with Reuters.
Scholz maintains that he coordinated his trip to China with the EU, France and the United States. “When I travel to Beijing as German Chancellor, I also do so as a European,” he wrote in his Wednesday op-ed. “Not speaking in the name of all of Europe would be false and presumptuous. But because the German Chinese policy can only succeed by being part of a European Chinese policy.
French newspaper Le Monde reported that President Emmanuel Macron had offered to go with Scholz to China, just as Macron and Merkel jointly hosted Xi in 2019. But the French government had asked for a later trip to Beijing, to avoid approval. perception of Xi’s further consolidation of power. , Politico reported. Scholz seems to have refused Macron.
The visit also comes just ahead of this month’s Group of 20 summit in Bali, Indonesia, where US officials are bracing for a possible meeting between Xi and Biden – and are trying mightily to signal that Europe, the United States United and other allies are united in the face of the Russian war.
The State Department official said Scholz’s explanation of his trip to China was in line with US preferences, but that Washington would follow with keen interest.
“What’s important to us is that it sends strong messages about all the things that we have collectively been willing to do if China got involved, but have been concerned about coercive behaviors and the like. China,” the official said.
Last April, when senior Chinese and European officials held a virtual summit, the Chinese side issued a reading while the call was still ongoing, prompting Western news agencies to broadcast talking points from Beijing as news alerts and allowing China to control the narrative.
With Scholz in Beijing territory, it could be difficult for the German side to distance themselves from such a move, potentially handing China a propaganda victory.
The Chinese Communist Party-controlled press will likely spend the coming weeks touting Scholz’s visit as a sign of China’s rise and seizing on signs that Germany is at odds with its allies. The Global Times has already picked up reports of a Franco-German split on Chinese policy.
Janka Oertel, director of the Asia program at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said it would be a mistake to think that Germany is not struggling with the lessons of the war in Ukraine. The debate is taking place at nearly every level of society, she said, from government to business and academia.
“There is no analytical problem in understanding what the problem is,” she said. “The challenge is what to do about it.”
Rauhala reported from Brussels and Hudson from Munster, Germany. Rick Noack in Paris contributed to this report.