China Focus Comes at a Cost for Germany

Following chancellor Angela Merkel’s visit to Beijing last week, Judy Dempsey warns at The New York Times that Germany’s booming trade with China may be a double-edged sword:

As the crisis drags down most European economies, Germany’s export-driven economy has been an exception because of Chinese demand for its high-quality goods, be they luxury cars, chemicals, machinery or renewable technology. Bilateral trade amounted to $169 billion last year, 19 percent more than in 2010.

But this ever-expanding relationship could have a downside.

“As demand has slowed in Europe, German companies are increasingly dependent on emerging economies and above all on China for growth,” Hans Kundnani and Jonas Parello-Plesner of the European Council on Foreign Relations, an independent research group, said in a new report on the China-Germany relationship.

[…] Even before the euro crisis, foreign policy experts in Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union party had warned against Germany focusing too much on China while paying insufficient attention to other Asian countries. Now, says Sebastian Bersick, associate professor of international relations at Fudan University in Shanghai, “It would not be wise for Germany to extend bilateral ties with China to a point where the very success alienates other E.U. member states.”

Merkel’s conciliatory tone last week over solar panel dumping accusations, which put her at odds with the EU trade commission, may suggest just such a willingness to put relations with China first. In the Times’ opinion pages, Timothy Garton Ash wrote that unity is Europe’s best chance to shake off its image as “the sick man of the developed world” and secure its standing alongside the US and the rising BRICS:

In a world of giants, you had better be a giant yourself: A trade negotiation between China and the European Union is a conversation between equals; one between China and France is an unequal affair.

A decade ago, Chinese policy makers took the European Union seriously as an emerging political force, a potential new pole in a multipolar world. Today, they treat it with something close to contempt. They look to Brussels only in a few specific areas, like trade and competition policy, where the European Union really does act as one. Otherwise, they prefer to deal with individual nations, as [last] week’s reception in Beijing for Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, made clear.

The remedy lies in Europe’s own hands. Were it to move beyond the resolution of the euro zone crisis into a closer fiscal and political union, then onto a genuinely common foreign policy, China would take it more seriously, as would America and Russia.

While Garton Ash argued that the passing of the Cold War had sapped the EU of its momentum, Global Times suggested that Cold War thinking and the burden of “Old Europe” are precisely Germany’s problem:

[… It] seems to be slow in responding to a changing world power structure brought by emerging countries. It also hasn’t shown the determination to play a bigger role worldwide. Although Berlin has been taking the lead in starting governmental consultations with China and India, it still sees emerging states from the old perspective.

Old Europe’s influence is indeed decreasing, although it has many of the finest legacies in the world. Germany should look beyond the Atlantic-EU system and sees itself with a global perspective. This means playing a leading role in transforming Europe.

[…] Unlike the former Soviet Union, China isn’t a threat to Europe. Perhaps out of old habits, European politics still follows the US lead. This has limited the choices of Europe. Merkel has visited China six times. As a former resident of East Germany, she should be able to tell today’s China is different from the old Soviet bloc.

Germany has the ability to lead a more independent diplomacy in global politics. It should not bury itself in old Europe.

Germany’s growing dependence on Chinese trade has also taken a toll on Merkel’s political agenda and reputation. Five years ago, she defended her rights-driven foreign policy in a speech to the German parliament, insisting that “human rights and economic interests are one side of the same medal, and should never stand in opposition to each other.” Last week, she did raise the issue of recently alleged abuses of reporters, as China-based German journalists had urged. (US secretary of state Hillary Clinton received similar requests during her own visit to China this week.) But critics claim that her earlier principles have been shoved to one side. While her generally harmonious approach secured a $4 billion Airbus deal and a cautious pledge of debt crisis support from Wen Jiabao, it also brought criticism from Tom Koenigs, head of Germany’s parliamentary human rights committee, and public mockery from artist Ai Weiwei. From Didi Kirsten Tatlow at The New York Times:

“The chancellor is too fixated on the economy,” said Mr. Koenigs. “The Chinese side has grown harder, especially in recent months,” he said, in comments reported here by the newspaper Die Zeit.

Ms. Merkel should speak out about the jailed Nobel Peace laureate Liu Xiaobo, or about freedom of speech in China, Mr. Koenigs said.

“If Ms. Merkel travels to China in such a pompous way, she must make clear ‘where the togetherness ends,’” he said.

Der Spiegel’s Wieland Wagner wrote similarly that China’s economic strength has “completely domesticated” Merkel:

Relations between Merkel and Beijing were not always this cordial. In 2007, Chinese leaders were furious when Merkel received the Dalai Lama in Berlin, a clear show of support for oppressed Tibet. Some in China also had high hopes for Merkel, and not just among dissidents. There are many in both the Communist Party and the Beijing government who hope to see democratic reforms in China. Moral support from the West is essential.

Yet with each visit to China, Merkel’s soft-spoken approach becomes even softer. During her last visit in the spring, Chinese authorities prevented a critical lawyer from attending her reception at the German Embassy. Later, Merkel’s wish to visit the offices of a relatively open newspaper in southern China went unfulfilled. In neither case did she complain publicly.

Merkel, in fact, seems to have become almost completely domesticated by the economic gains made by the Asian superpower. She still, of course, addresses points of bilateral contention — during a press conference with her host Premier Wen Jiabao she requested that German press correspondents be treated better following repeated incidents of hassling. Beyond that, however, Merkel appeared overly considerate of a single-party dictatorship that pays little mind to human rights, neither at home in China nor elsewhere in the world.