German Chancellor Olaf Scholz embarks on a high-stakes visit to China this week, becoming the first European Union leader to visit the Asian superpower since the start of the COVID pandemic, as well as the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
The German leader promised a “frank exchange” with the Chinese leaders on everything from trade and human rights to Taiwan and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
It is also the first trip by an EU leader since Xi secured a third mandate that breaks the precedents and further consolidated his grip on power by packing the upper echelons of the party with its loyalists.
In an article for Politico on Thursday, Scholz wrote that “China today is not the same as it was five or 10 years ago” and “as China changes, the way we dealing with China must also change”.
Scholz is expected to be accompanied by a high-level trade delegation, made up of senior executives from companies such as Volkswagen, BASF and Deutsche Bank.
Commercial interests rather than strategic concerns?
The visit, however, drew criticism as many in Germany and the EU see Scholz prioritizing short-term business interests over strategic concerns and EU unity.
Scholz’s decision to go ahead with the trip “shows his narrow focus on short-term German business interests, which took precedence over any consideration of EU unity,” said Mathieu Duchatel, Asia program director at the Institut Montaigne in Paris, to DW.
On Twitter, Norbert Röttgen, a foreign policy expert in the Christian Democratic opposition wrote: “Contrary to all announcements, the Scholz government simply continues to bet on the short-term profits of big business, while ignoring the costs of long-term dependence on China. “
The visit comes shortly after Scholz — despite the objections of many members of his cabinet and the ruling coalition – pushed through a controversial deal to allow China’s state-owned shipping company Cosco buys a 24.9% minority stake in one of Hamburg’s port terminals.
The deal has raised fears that Beijing will gradually increase control over key infrastructure on the mainland.
Thierry Breton, EU internal market commissioner, told Reuters this week that EU countries “shouldn’t be naïve when approving Chinese investments”.
“We have to be extremely vigilant,” he said.
Wary of China’s growing influence
The Baltics and some other countries of the former Soviet bloc have also become increasingly wary of China’s growing economic influence in Europe, especially given Beijing’s “boundless” friendship with Moscow.
At an EU summit in Brussels on October 21 on relations with China, the Baltic states stressed the importance of speaking to Beijing with a “single voice”.
“It’s important that we don’t have separate agreements with China, because that would mean that we are weak as a union,” Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas told reporters in Brussels.
Latvian Prime Minister Krisjanis Kariņs says ‘it’s better to deal with China when we’re 27, not when we’re one and one’, in reference to unity among EU member states .
Jörg Wuttke, president of the European Chamber of Commerce in China, said the Baltic countries’ view of China is understandable, given their history with Russia and Moscow’s close partnership with Beijing.
But, he added, there is no issue of one-sided dependence when it comes to EU-China relations.
“The EU’s dependence on Russia was for two vital products, gas and oil. Whereas with China the trade relationship is different and China is more dependent on the European Union. Europe also creates millions of job opportunities in China, so I don’t see a real discussion about dependency there,” he told DW.
Lack of reciprocity in relationships
Wuttke, however, stressed that it was important for the German Chancellor to remind Beijing of the lack of reciprocity in market accessChinese companies being free to operate in the EU while European companies cannot do the same in China.
“So this should be a conversation about reciprocity,” he added.
In his op-ed, Scholz wrote that despite “changed circumstances” due to Russia’s war in Ukraine, China remains “an important business and trade partner” for Germany and Europe. “We don’t want to part with it.”
China was Germany’s biggest trading partner in 2021 for the sixth consecutive year, its biggest source of imports and its second largest export destination after the United States.
And German industrial giants have continued to invest huge sums of money in the Asian country in recent months, according to think tank Rhodium Group, which focuses on the Chinese economy.
Despite close economic ties, calls are growing louder for Berlin to take a tougher stance on an increasingly assertive and authoritarian Beijing.
This prompted Scholz’s government to presently formulate its first-ever China strategy.
Projecting a united front is essential
Some argue that Scholz’s solo visit to China could weaken his hand in talks with Chinese leaders and that he should have traveled to Beijing with French President Emmanuel Macron instead, which would have projected the unity of the EU.
Nevertheless, Macron and Scholz have so far struggled to be on the same page on China.
Reuters quoted unnamed French and German government sources as saying Macron suggested to Scholz that they travel to Beijing together to send a signal of EU unity and counter what they see as Chinese attempts to play the game. against each other.
But the German Chancellor declined Macron’s proposal, the sources said.
Noah Barkin, a Berlin-based Europe-China relations analyst at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, said the “optics of traveling separately to Beijing were not ideal”, although he highlighted those meetings – after three years of no face-to-face contact and strained relations between the EU and China – were understandable.
“Holding bilateral meetings with the Chinese president at the G20 summit in November would make more sense,” he told DW, adding, “These separate trips to Beijing will raise suspicion in Europe and among key allies over the fact that Germany and France are pursuing their own agenda. In Beijing.”
“It is therefore of vital importance for Scholz and Macron not to allow Beijing to pit Germany and France against each other. It would be a major setback for Europe after years of effort. to develop a united front.”
Edited by: Srinivas Mazumdaru