The introduction of a new government is an exciting time for many internationally and nationally. Not only does it bring fresh new policies, but also means that fresh faces with new ideas are able to make a change. However, a country’s foreign policy is rooted in history, with years of oscillating diplomatic relationships with various countries. Therefore, it is not so easy to modify the inertia of a country’s foreign policy sentiment. One of those tightly sealed relations is between China and Germany.
Recently, Germany ended its long 16-year journey with Angela Merkel as chancellor and introduced a new face for the country – Olaf Scholz. Scholz, a Social Democrat, took over as chancellor on the 8th of December 2021 and will be the 9th leader of the country. The gender-balanced 16-strong Cabinet consists of seven ministers from the Social Democrats, five Greens, and four Free Democrats (Posaner et. al, 2021). The new coalition government “dares more progress”, indicating a move towards relatively progressive economic, social, and electoral policies for Germany through to 2025 (McElwee, 2021). But what does this new era mean for Germany’s relations with other countries?
Merkel, during her extended time as chancellor, carefully and successfully juggled the country’s foreign relations with major powers by remaining loyal to Germany’s alliance partner, the United States, while keeping delicate relations with Russia somewhat intact, as well as establishing an essential partnership with China (Fallon, 2021). In particular, Germany’s relationship with China has been thrown into the spotlight with the ascension of the new government. This is because Merkel had primarily seen China as an economic partner, vital for not only Germany’s prosperity, but also for Europe (McElwee, 2021). Moreover, Merkel’s realpolitik meant that there was a reluctance on her side to acknowledge the human rights violations occurring in, for example, Hong Kong, Xinjiang or Taiwan, as Germany’s economic interests were placed higher (Fallon, 2021). Now with the release of the long-awaited coalition agreement, which defines how Germany intends to reposition itself internationally and domestically, Scholz and his government intend to take a tougher stance on China (Zhang, 2022). But will Germany really be able to change its relationship, one that has spanned centuries, with a highly important and powerful country such as China?
The China Stance of Merkel’s Government
As mentioned prior, Germany has a long history with China, both watching each other grow, strengthen their defenses, and expand throughout history. Not only is China a formidable country, but it is also Germany’s main trading partner. When Merkel first stepped foot on Chinese soil as Chancellor in 2006, she was welcomed with fanfare befitting an important world leader. But little did she know how important China was going to be for Germany and her legacy. Not only was Merkel a fresh new face, half the age of her successor, but also a woman. She also brought human rights openly into the dialogue with China, something that many other leaders did not deem important enough to do (Walker, 2021). However, her intentions were not to start an argument but instead stated in 2006, “We will not only follow the development of civil society in China, but also use forms of dialogue to try to develop it in a direction that means more openness and more freedom” (Ibid). Essentially, Merkel aimed to use the idea of “Wandel durch Handel” (“change through trade” in English). This is the idea suggesting that participation in trade with a country such as China offers the ability for it to politically liberalize (Ibid). However, through the course of her chancellorship, Merkel started to realize the huge benefits of being on the good side of a formidable and powerful country such as China.
After the financial crisis in 2008, China acted as a cushion for Germany’s economy, because China’s growth rate was expanding at rates that Europe could only dream of. With that, Merkel saw the economic opportunities. Soon, every meeting with Chinese leaders became a platform for deal-making. Merkel placed economic policy at the front and center of her negotiations with China (Tatlow, 2021). Not only was this economically beneficial, but it also ensured a growth of trust, which some might consider an even more important asset (Ibid). Everything was all set on both fronts, Germany benefited greatly from China and China gained the innovative capacity that Germany could deliver for them. But consternation remained regarding the human rights violations that go against everything Germany and the EU portrays.
Hong Kong’s extradition bill, mass oppression, concentration camps, forced labor in Xinjiang, and the existential threat of the takeover of Taiwan are just a few of the examples which threw the relationship into peril. Moreover, China was set to overtake Germany in its key economic sectors such as heavy machinery and cars - areas which Germany has worked hard to establish for many years. Therefore, towards the end of her term, Merkel tried to negotiate an investment deal in 2020 between the EU and China, one that needed ratification from the EU Parliament (Walker, 2021). However, when the abuses of the Muslim Uyghur minority in Xinjiang lead to widespread anger in Europe, the EU placed sanctions on a group of Chinese officials which then led to retaliatory sanctions against MEPs and various institutions. Therefore, the EU refused to ratify the deal and left Merkel with little to no time to attempt to resolve the issue (Ibid).
The new “value-based” foreign policy: Will it work?
“Eloquent silence is not a form of diplomacy for the long-term, through many have believed so in recent years” – Annalina Baerbock, 2021 (Gong, 2022)
After 16 years of conservative-led rule under Merkel, Germany sees a new coalition government that has a more modern vision and set of policy priorities (Kirby, 2021). Germany is finally defining a new reality that has emerged over the last few years, with a foreign policy driven towards human rights, and being more proactive and values-based (Oertel & Small, 2021). Consequently, Germany will not ignore significant human rights violations occurring in China. The most vocal advocate for Germany’s renewed will to uphold human rights is German foreign minister Annalina Baerbock from the Green party (Kirby, 2021). She plans to speak out and take a tougher approach to China; something previous politicians were reluctant to do. This is very different from Merkel’s government foreign policy priorities – a preference of business over human rights, frequently bringing German corporate leaders on her trips to Beijing (Falk, 2021).
Interestingly, Scholz himself claimed his government is not pursuing any “decoupling fantasies” (Bermingham, 2021). Such “fantasies” would be where the US, China and Europe segregate their geostrategic systems and structures as having an integrated global economy is integral for the progression of the world economy. Therefore, evidently, Scholz himself will likely pursue a sense of continuity with China (Falk, 2021). The main voice for German foreign policy is via Baerbock who seeks a foreign policy that is not purely economic. Being from the Green party, human rights is something traditionally of importance. Baerbock has not been shy in emphasizing the importance it will play in Germany’s foreign policy for the coming years. (Goldenberg, 2021). She aims to be more outspoken on human rights and reduce economic dependency on China (Kirby, 2021). It is therefore interesting to see how the new coalition government will align their priorities and decide on how to move Germany forward.
Moreover, the new government is pro-European at its core meaning new strategies of its foreign policies will be more deeply embedded in current EU initiatives. This aims to make the EU a stronger global actor with more capabilities (Falk, 2021). As Thomas Falk states, the “unilateral and China-friendly policy decisions quasi-dedicated by Berlin now seem archaic” (Ibid). The new coalition is more inclined and dedicated to stressing a common EU strategy.
However, the dilemma for Germany is that China is its largest trading partner with many German firms having their operations in controversial regions such as Xinjiang. In the past, this has hindered politicians from speaking out against China. Resultantly, it is unknown whether Germany can even consider loosening ties with China (Gehrke, et. al, 2021).
Nevertheless, it is difficult to see if Germany will be able to reduce its economic dependency on China as it is the most important country for many important German industries. For example, half of the global car market expansion is in China and 60 percent of global growth in chemicals is in China. This is in addition to many more factors which are vital for Germany to be a leading economic power (Walker, 2021) . There will be an increase of US-German dialogue as US President Biden, during his short time in office, has called upon Europeans to join a united front against Beijing. Therefore, Germany will most likely entertain the transatlantic partnership more than Merkel would ever consider (Falk, 2021).
China presents a test of democracy itself - to not only Germany, but also the West. There will be pressure from the German population, Germany’s allies, as well as from within the Bundestag to push Germany towards lessening its dependencies on China. When Merkel first brought “Wandel durch Handel” to her foreign policy, many viewed it as the best way to have relations with China and ultimately influence its tight authoritarian regime (Barkin, 2020). However, after 16 years, many have lost faith in the transformation through trade rhetoric and now have accepted that Germany is too dependent on China for such to have leeway to negotiate. It is not to say an extreme response such as complete decoupling is the only way forward, something no one is advocating for, but more of a reassessment of strategic dependencies with the need for diversification. But many important questions remain, including the plausibility of lessening Germany’s dependence on China, or whether economic pressure is even an option. Although the new government’s policy on China will prove complex and dynamic, it is still unclear which direction Germany’s foreign policy will actually take (Kastner, 2021). The answer will ultimately be seen in the next few years with the new coalition government forging a new strategy of foreign policy. Until then, one thing is for certain: Sixteen years of economic cooperation between Germany and China built by Merkel cannot simply cease without significant impact on the German economy.
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