Expert: Scholtz's Beijing visit splits Europe

Olaf Scholtz and Xi Jinping in Beijing.
Olaf Scholtz and Xi Jinping in Beijing. Source: ERR

German Chancellor Olaf Scholtz's one-day visit to Beijing yielded nothing as no trade agreements were signed or major international deals cut.

Scholtz took flak from his coalition partners and a part of the business elite even before his visit, not least for pushing the sale of 25 percent of the Port of Hamburg through in the cabinet.

As former mayor, Scholtz defended selling a part of the harbor to Chinese container giant Cosco by saying that the company will not have a say in strategic decisions and the sale has nothing to do with his visit.

Scholtz's coalition partners were less than convinced. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, led by the Greens' Annalena Baerbock, found that the Chinese investment disproportionally expands China's influence in German and European infrastructure.

Unlike Scholtz, Xi Jinping never went as far as saying Russia must not threaten the use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine. The German chancellor later said he raised the issues of human rights, the treatment of Uighurs and growing Taiwan tensions at the meeting.

Kristi Raik, director of the Estonian Foreign Policy Institute at the ICDS, said that the visit has done more harm than good to Europe-China relations. "It has split Europe and transatlantic relations. The U.S. was very critical of the visit and it yielded no tangible benefits. Scholtz simply showed Germany to be weak. He clearly demonstrated that Germany continues to prioritize economic interests and is not a strategic player to be taken seriously," Raik said.

Scholtz was accompanied by a business delegation that included the heads of Volkswagen and the world's leading chemical company BASF. At the same time, executives at Mercedes Benz or ThyssenKrupp did not find the time for the visit. Volkswagen sells over a third of the cars it makes in China where it has 30 plants and over 90,000 employees. Trade volumes between the two countries have been growing for six straight years and there are no signs to suggest that could change.

Economic Affairs Minister Robert Habeck recently warned German industrial companies for naivete in China relations but was forced to dial back his statement as entrepreneurs find the Chinese market irreplaceable. Habeck later said that his statement was not leveled as an accusation. But have Scholtz's Social Democrats still not realized from Russia's invasion of Ukraine that social change does not happen through economic dependence? On the other hand, while Germany could afford to dial back trade with Russia, is it even possible in China's case?

Kristi Raik said that the answer is no. "Definitely not. Germany's ties to China are many times as great and as complex as its dependence on Russia. There is widespread consensus that a complete break in trade relations is impossible and not something the German economy would survive. But it has been suggested that Germany should consider what are its more important and more vulnerable sectors in which dependence on China should be minimized, including critical infrastructure, technology, rate earth metals, and the medical sectors that are especially sensitive and where dependence is great. Hoping that Europe will plot a course for reducing these dependencies, it can be done," Raik suggested.

"That said, Germany is working on a new China strategy that will plot a new course and consider security interests. The EU is also looking at a new China strategy. Germany is the most dependent on China for its economy, while it is also the largest economy in the EU," Raik said.

While Scholtz suggested after his meeting with Chinese leader Xi Jinping that he raised important issues like human rights, the treatment of the Uighur people, Russia's nuclear threats in Ukraine or growing Taiwan tensions, Kristi Raik said that all Western countries have attempted to press the human rights issue and gotten exactly nowhere.

The new China strategies of Germany and the EU are complicated by the fact that rate earth metals are needed to meet climate targets, while the latter would have to be postponed should the recently more aggressive and confident Beijing decide to solve the Taiwan issue by force.

"It follows Russia's attack on Ukraine raising the question of whether climate targets should be revisited. If Europe is trying to develop relations with China, which clashes with the approach of the Americans, it creates tensions in transatlantic relations," Raik said.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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