German foreign minister Annalena Baerbock is in China for three days this week, her first official trip to the country. Her main aim is to nudge Xi Jinping into putting pressure on Russia to end the war in Ukraine. Probably mission impossible, considering China has not uttered a word of criticism towards Vladimir Putin. Another priority is to pick up the pieces following Emmanuel Macron’s visit to Beijing last week. Days afterwards, he said that Europe should stay out of the Taiwan conflict and concentrate its efforts on becoming a superpower rather than be a “vassal” of the United States.
Baerbock yesterday went some way to distancing Germany from Macron’s position. Today, she went so far as to warn China against using military force on Taiwan, describing such action as a “horror scenario”.
Macron’s comments have been criticised by a number of senior politicians in Germany. Only far-Right or far-Left politicians, united in their anti-Americanism, publicly nod their heads in agreement, though one veteran Green, Jürgen Trittin, pointed out this week that Macron’s utterances were a reminder that Trump or another isolationist might soon return to the White House, once again kicking the legs from under the transatlantic alliance.
Chancellor Olaf Scholz, a social democrat who still fundamentally believes in the mantra of “peace through trade”, would never be so outspoken, though his track record has indicated some sympathy to China. In his previous job as mayor of Hamburg, Scholz pushed for Chinese involvement in the city’s harbour before, last year, Chinese state-owned shipping company Cosco announced plans to buy a 35% stake in a cargo terminal, a deal the Chancellor endorsed. After some grumbling from within his SPD-Green-liberal coalition, Scholz’s cabinet agreed on an acquisition of no more than 24.9%.
But as China has become more aggressive towards Taiwan this year, the German cybersecurity agency, housed in the SPD-run Ministry for the Interior, has classified the harbour as ‘critical infrastructure’. A Chinese stake could pose a security threat. This triggered Vice Chancellor Robert Habeck to take another look at the controversial deal, which is still unfinished.
Right now, it appears that the Greens’ “value-based” foreign and economic policies are taking centre stage, despite corporate Germany’s enduring hunger for trade with China, as well as a plea from a group of pro-business Social Democrats in parliament to tone down the rhetoric on China.
Echoing the language of EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, whose visit to China last week was overshadowed by Macron’s attention-grabbing remarks, Baerbock favours “de-risking”. That is to say, continued economic ties with a dose of critical engagement. This includes visits to German-owned wind turbine and e-mobility firms in China, in line with plans for cooperation on climate change between the two countries. Meanwhile, Habeck is actively discouraging more trade with China by capping state export credits for German firms. It’s a rather wobbly balancing act.
Ultimately, Germany understands that this isn’t the time to question relations with the US, which is providing the lion’s share of military aid to Ukraine. European defence hinges upon America, while tens of thousands of US troops are still based in Germany. If push comes to shove, at least in this tense geopolitical situation, there should be no doubt where Germany stands.