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Foreign Policy

Germany Asserts Itself Gently

Nov 14, 2022
  • Zhang Yun

    Associate Professor at National Niigata University in Japan, Nonresident Senior Fellow at University of Hong Kong

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s recent China trip has sparked concerns in the wider international community: He was the first Western leader to travel to China since the start of the pandemic, and at a time Washington has been increasing pressure on Beijing.

In October alone, the United States sent three consecutive signals of tight constraints on China. On Oct. 7 it rolled out extensive new restrictions on China’s access to advanced semiconductors and the equipment used to make them, in addition to requiring its allies to observe the rules, too. In its 2022 National Security Strategy report, published on Oct. 12, China is defined as an “authoritarian” and “revisionist” power and the “only competitor with both the intent to reshape the international order and, increasingly, the economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to advance that objective.” China presents “America’s most consequential geopolitical challenge," the report said.

Then, on Oct.27, the U.S. Department of Defense released its 2022 Nuclear Posture Review, which bluntly alleges that China poses nuclear threats.

Looking back on recent years, it was inevitable that the deterioration of Sino-U.S. ties would have an adverse impact on China’s relations with Germany and on the European Union generally. Controversies around Scholz’s China visit arose within Germany before the chancellor set off. He could have arranged to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping at the upcoming G20 summit, since flying twice from Europe to Asia within two weeks would create a physical burden. It is therefore fair to say that Scholz’s visit embodied the German chancellor’s political resolution to illustrate German strategic autonomy and to provide an opportunity for China and Europe to explore ways to handle China-U.S.-Europe relations.

In the first place, Germany’s show of autonomy is not driven by a diplomatic doctrine dominated by mercantilism but is determined by its recognition of global political and economic shifts. There’s no doubt that economic and trade relations constitute the cornerstone of ties between China and Germany. China has been Germany’s biggest trading partner for six consecutive years. There are around 7,000 German companies operating in China and some 2,000 Chinese companies stationed in Germany. Every time German leaders have visited China, they bring a large business delegation.

However, taking mercantilism as the main driving force in Germany’s China policy is shallow. More important is Germany’s understanding of the overall global landscape and its own long-term interests. In an op-ed about his China visit that was published in The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Scholz wrote: “New centers of power are emerging in a multipolar world, and we aim to establish and expand partnerships with all of them.” In his meeting with Xi, he reiterated that a multipolar world is needed in which emerging countries are worthy of attention for their role and influence. That was not mere diplomatic parlance but a response to a changing world.

Germany, a success story that emerged from the last industrial revolution, will lose its economic and technological competitiveness if it rests on its laurels. Emerging economies, including China, are delivering better performances than developed countries in many aspects in the current industrialization process, which involves digital technology and electric vehicles. If Germany chooses to decouple, it will not merely lose the market but will forfeit opportunities to compete and innovate. For Germany, being a communication channel between developed countries and emerging ones fits its interests best.

Second, the logic of German strategic autonomy is part of European strategic autonomy — but rather low-key and pragmatic. Unlike France calling for European strategic autonomy in a high-profile way, the term is rarely seen in Germany's official documents or used by Scholz.

“German policy on China can only be successful when it is embedded in European policy on China,” Scholz wrote   , adding that he had therefore coordinated closely with his European partners, including French President Emmanuel Macron. That he became the first Western leader to exchange information with the Chinese president after the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China was in itself attractive to other EU member states.

For the EU, political decoupling from China cannot resolve their differences but could lead to a loss of communication channels. From this point of view, maintaining communication with top Chinese officials reveals Germany’s intent to serve as the bridge between the EU and China. Meanwhile, understanding and support from other EU members can, to some degree, reduce the strategic pressure from the United States.

Third, it is noted that Germany is reinforcing its strategic autonomy while sparing Washington’s feelings. Just days before Scholz’s China visit, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier traveled to Japan and South Korea. In Japan, he stressed cooperation with countries that share democratic values, and also underlined Germany’s increased defense cooperation with the Asian country. Further, Germany and Japan hosted their second 2+2 Foreign and Defense Ministerial Meeting last Thursday. These actions are in line with the Biden administration’s ideological predisposition of “democracy vs. autocracy.” Fortifying defense cooperation with America’s most important ally in Asia also tallies with Washington’s concept of “integrated deterrence.”

As one of the key European allies of the U.S., Germany is exploring its own version of strategic autonomy, a low-profile and pragmatic one, not only for itself but also for Europe. Its China policy will be a crucial touchstone on this expedition. 

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