Germany’s China Strategy: A Balanced Approach and New Challenges


News – Analysis By Yusuf Ertuğral

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s longest foreign visit to China, from April 13 to 16, has been criticized for various reasons. Opinions are divided, especially in the German press, but also in the world press. In this analysis, I will try to strike a balance by addressing both the criticisms and the justifications for German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s visit to China, and in the concluding section I will present my own analysis of how Germany should pursue its domestic and foreign policy. First, let’s take a brief look at the opinions in the press.

Press coverage

For some critics, Scholz’s visit appears to prioritize short-term business interests over strategic concerns and EU unity. Scholz’s visit included top executives from companies such as Volkswagen, BASF and Deutsche Bank, suggesting to some that Germany continues to “put business relations first”. This is perceived as a “Germany-first” approach, especially by other parts of Europe.

Scholz’s visit to China has caused a serious repercussion in France. It comes at a time when French President Emmanuel Macron is at odds with Scholz over cooperation with China, and his rejection of Macron’s offer suggests that Scholz does not want Macron to overshadow him during the visit. At the same time, given Europe’s current economic woes and the pressure of US trade policies, it is important for Germany to maintain ties with China, especially from a trade perspective.

Germany’s current coalition (Traffic Light Coalition) government has a Coalition Agreement that includes adopting a more critical approach to relations with China. However, Scholz’s visit has led to criticism that he has not fulfilled his commitments to this agreement. In particular, some have criticized his approval of a deal allowing the Chinese state-owned company COSCO to buy a minority stake in a terminal at the port of Hamburg, over the objections of the cabinet and coalition partners. Scholz’s move is perceived as undermining a tougher approach to China strategy that the German government has been working on for months and will soon unveil.

Moreover, calls for unity within the EU and maintaining the principle of reciprocity in relations with China seem to have been overshadowed by Scholz’s visit. Some EU member states see Germany’s strategic agreement with China as an attempt to weaken the unity and strength of the EU.

When we look at the general framework of the criticism, Scholz’s visit to China revealed the difficulties and balances in Germany’s foreign policy and drew criticism from many different quarters. These criticisms focused on how Germany should balance its short-term commercial interests with its long-term strategic concerns and its association with the EU.

In order to understand both the criticism and the justification for the visit to China, let’s take a look at some of the justifications and some of the criticisms of how you can address these two aspects:

Justified Reasons:

Economic Ties and Dependency

Germany has long had strong trade relations with China and the country is Germany’s largest trading partner. Scholz’s visit appears to be an effort to maintain these relations, especially during the post-pandemic economic recovery period.

Personal Diplomacy

Scholz’s visit is important to build personal relationships between the two leaders and ensure continuity in bilateral relations. This is essential for continued cooperation, especially in tackling global challenges such as climate change and COVID-19.

Strategic Diversification

Germany’s security challenges in obtaining energy from Russia may have highlighted the need to diversify its supply chain and reduce “strategic dependencies”. This could be seen as part of a strategic plan underlying Scholz’s visit.

Criticisms and Concerns:

EU Union and Reciprocity Principles

Scholz’s visit has been criticized as undermining the EU’s principles of unity and solidarity on China and weakening the EU’s ability to act together.

Impact on Domestic Politics

In Germany, coalition partners, especially the Green Party, have been criticized for wanting to adopt a tougher policy with China, and Scholz has been criticized for violating coalition agreements on this issue.

Security Concerns and Human Rights:

Scholz’s visit has been criticized for failing to adequately address strategic and ethical concerns such as human rights abuses and China’s growing authoritarianism.

In the evaluations we have made so far, it is seen that Scholz is acting within a planned and strategic plan underlying his visit to China. Let us now briefly try to elaborate on this.

Germany’s China Policy of the Scholz Government: A Balanced Approach

The complexity of relations between Germany and China is based on the two states’ different political systems, economic interests and geopolitical goals. Germany’s recent China policy deeply influences the dynamics of this relationship and encourages a balanced approach to international relations.

Political and Economic Contexts

Germany’s relations with China aim to strike a balance between strategic and economic benefits as well as values such as respect for human rights and international legal norms. This is particularly important in view of China’s increasing foreign policy aggressiveness and its alarming stance on human rights issues. In this context, Germany’s China policy seeks to strike a balance between seizing economic opportunities and maintaining a commitment to international law and human rights.

Economic Dependency and “De-risking”

China is a critical trading partner for Germany, but this relationship has the potential to create economic dependence. Germany’s “de-risking” policy aims to reduce this dependence and increase trade diversification, while avoiding completely severing economic ties with China. Germany does not intend to impede China’s development as the world’s second largest economy, but pursues a mutually beneficial and fairer trade balancing approach.

Human Rights and International Norms

China’s human rights record, in particular its treatment of Uighur Muslims and the suppression of democratic freedoms in Hong Kong are at the heart of Germany’s concerns. Germany has repeatedly condemned these situations in China and called on China to respect international law and human rights. This reinforces Germany’s value-oriented foreign policy and underlines the importance Germany attaches to human rights.

China’s Response and Bilateral Relations

China has responded to Germany’s new policy by arguing that political trust should be enhanced and economic cooperation should be maintained. China characterizes Germany’s “de-risking” approach as ideological bias and competitive concerns and argues that cooperation between the two countries should be mutually beneficial. However, since China is also seeking to shape the international order according to its one-party system, Germany’s concerns find a legitimate basis.

As a result

In light of Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s visit to China and the accompanying international reactions, Germany’s domestic politics is undergoing an important process of balance and adjustment. The controversy surrounding the visit has led to a variety of reactions among the coalition partners and in public opinion. Coalition partners such as the Greens and the FDP (Free Democratic Party – “Liberals”) preferred to adopt a tougher stance in relations with China and demanded

more action on economic interests as well as on human rights and commitment to international norms, which has been an important factor in the government’s foreign policy.

This was particularly evident after controversial decisions such as the purchase of a minority stake in a terminal at the port of Hamburg by the Chinese state-owned company COSCO. While such decisions by the Scholz government were intended to protect Germany’s economic interests, they also created a perception that contradicted the coalition’s long-term strategic and ethical goals. Public and media criticism has led to a reconsideration of Germany’s economic ties with China, while at the same time questioning how the EU will uphold the principles of unity and integrity and democratic values.

Germany’s foreign policy stance will be important both for safeguarding national interests and for maintaining its reputation in the international community. This requires a careful strategy on how to translate domestic conflicts into international politics. As a result, the German government will have to adopt a multifaceted and flexible foreign policy in order to find a balance between economic interests, relations with allies and international values. In the process, strategic decisions will be taken that will shape Germany’s future foreign policy, taking into account both intra-EU dynamics and expanded transatlantic relations.

To read the article in Turkish

Photo: Discontent expressed by German businesses in China shows the tensions inherent in a relationship characterised by high levels of trade as well as fierce competition. Photo: EPA-EFE

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