BERLIN — German Chancellor Olaf Scholz is set to travel to Beijing on Friday, becoming the first Group of Seven leader to visit since the start of the pandemic, but allies in Germany, Europe and the United States have raised concerns about his ability to deliver a clear, coherent message on where his country and the broader West stand.
Scholz will be traveling alongside a delegation of business leaders, and the economic emphasis strikes some observers as worrying — a little too similar to former chancellor Angela Merkel’s mercantilist approach to foreign policy, which cemented Germany’s reliance on cheap Russian energy and left Berlin painfully exposed when relations with Moscow deteriorated over the war in Ukraine.
There is now a broad consensus in Europe about the need to rethink ties with China. But some allies say Scholz appears to be out of step. Most alarming, they say, was his willingness to allow the sale of a stake in a German port terminal to a Chinese firm, despite German intelligence warnings and furious opposition from within his cabinet. Scholz is also poised to permit a Chinese takeover of a German microchip company.
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“There is a little bit of shock across the continent. And this serves China’s interest in dividing Europe,” said Bonnie Glaser, director of the Asia Program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
“There is a concern in Washington, as well,” she said. “The United States is feeling like this is a moment where we all have to be aligned.”
Scholz has touted a zeitenwende, or “turning point,” in German foreign and defense policy since the start of the war in Ukraine. He has said the invasion, along with changes in China itself, have forced a fundamental shift in German government strategy toward Beijing. He is known as a cautious leader, however. And with a recession looming, he does not appear eager to dramatically disrupt Germany’s relationship with its largest trading partner.
Writing Wednesday in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, the chancellor dismissed the notion of “decoupling” from China and instead talked about eliminating “risky dependencies.” He said he intends to press Chinese President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang on reciprocity in areas such as market access and intellectual property protection.
Although the German government said coronavirus restrictions would make it difficult to hold meetings with activists and NGOs that are customary for European leaders on such trips, Scholz pledged not to “ignore controversies,” including “respect for civil and political liberties and the rights of ethnic minorities,” China’s threats toward Taiwan and its tacit support of Russian aggression in Ukraine.
Under Xi, China has grown more authoritarian at home and more assertive on the world stage. It has waged a brutal crackdown on Uyghurs and other Turkic minorities, crushed dissent in Hong Kong, and raised the specter of military force to take control of Taiwan.
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Scholz’s critics questioned the approving message that might be conveyed by a Beijing trip on the heels of Xi’s appointment to a third term, securing his position as the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong.
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In Germany, allowing Chinese shipping giant Cosco to buy a stake in a port terminal in the northern city of Hamburg appeared to be a further “gift for China to create a decent atmosphere,” said Roderich Kiesewetter, a Christian Democrat on the parliamentary foreign affairs committee.
Six German government ministries voiced objections last month to the port deal. Germany’s intelligence chiefs also issued stark public warnings about the dangers of Chinese investment in the country’s infrastructure and businesses. “Russia is the storm, but China is climate change,” said the head of domestic intelligence, Thomas Haldenwang. Bruno Kahl, from Germany’s equivalent of the CIA, added that security services were “very very critical” of the sale of important infrastructure to China.
In the end, Scholz — who is also a former mayor of Hamburg — pushed through a compromise that permitted Cosco to buy a reduced 25 percent stake, rather than a previously planned 35 percent, which would have amounted to a blocking minority.
A senior State Department official told The Washington Post on Wednesday that the compromise followed concerted engagement by U.S. officials in Berlin.
“The embassy was very clear that we strongly suggested that there be no controlling interest by China, and, as you see, when they adjusted the deal, there isn’t,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive diplomatic talks.
The official noted that the majority of stakeholders “remain Hamburg city and remain the port itself, which is important for the standards we’re trying to set among all of the G-7 countries and for the world.”
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China’s foreign ministry responded angrily on Thursday to the suggestion that the United States had played a role in the deal.
“Pragmatic cooperation between China and Germany is a matter for the two sovereign countries; the United States should not attack it without reason and has no right to meddle and interfere,” spokesman Zhao Lijian told reporters in Beijing.
The compromise was also met with widespread dissatisfaction in Germany. The Finance Ministry and Foreign Ministry both wrote letters of protest, according to Der Spiegel. The acquisition “disproportionately expands China’s strategic influence over German and European transport infrastructure and Germany’s dependence on China,” Foreign Office State Secretary Susanne Baumann wrote to Scholz’s chief of staff.
A second U.S. official suggested that the port sale “confirms that Scholz and his team truly haven’t learned from Russia-Ukraine.” The official, speaking on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the topic, said the arguments about the risks felt like a “repeat” of debates over Nord Stream 2, the controversial Russian gas pipeline that German officials for years framed as a purely commercial private business deal.
The potential takeover of the Dortmund, Germany-based microchip company Elmos by a wholly owned subsidiary of China’s Sai Microelectronics comes as the United States moves to cut China off from advanced technology through export controls.
The German government has argued that the technology used by Elmos is outdated, but the decision still goes against express warnings from German intelligence, Handelsblatt newspaper reported.
Collectively, the actions have contributed to a sense of bafflement and frustration with Germany’s leadership from partners such as the United States and fellow members of the European Union, who would like to see more coordination from Berlin.
“It’s very important that the behavior of member states toward China … change in a way that’s more coordinated than individually-driven, as China obviously wants us to be,” E.U. trade chief Thierry Breton said in an interview with Reuters on Monday.
Scholz maintains that he coordinated his China trip with the E.U., France, and the United States. “When I travel to Beijing as German chancellor, I also do so as a European,” he wrote in his Wednesday op-ed. “Not to speak on behalf of the whole of Europe, that would be wrong and presumptuous. But because German China policy can only be successfully embedded in a European China policy.”
French newspaper Le Monde reported that President Emmanuel Macron had proposed going with Scholz to China, just as Macron and Merkel jointly hosted Xi in 2019. But the French government had urged a later Beijing trip, to avoid a perceived endorsement of Xi’s new consolidation of power, Politico reported. Scholz appears to have turned Macron down.
The visit also comes just before this month’s Group of 20 summits in Bali, Indonesia, where U.S. officials are preparing for a possible meeting between Xi and Biden — and are trying mightily to signal that Europe, the United States, and other allies are united in the face of Russia’s war.
The State Department official said Scholz’s op-ed explanation of his China trip was in line with U.S. preferences, but that Washington would be watching with keen interest.
“What’s important to us is that he sends strong messages about all of the things that we have collectively been willing to do if China will engage, but have been concerned about in terms of China’s coercive and other behaviors,” the official said.
Last April, when top Chinese and E.U. officials held a virtual summit, the Chinese side published a readout while the call was still taking place, prompting Western news organizations to flash Beijing talking points as news alerts and allowing China to control the narrative.
With Scholz on Beijing’s turf, it could be hard for the German side to get out in front of that type of maneuver, potentially handing China a propaganda victory by allowing the country to cast Scholz’s visit as a German effort to — as one observer put it — “kiss the ring.”
China’s Communist Party-controlled press is likely to spend the coming weeks touting Scholz’s visit as a sign of China’s ascendance and seizing on signs that Germany is at odds with its allies. The Global Times has already picked up on reports of a Franco-German rift on China policy, attributing the split to the European “sour grapes.”
Janka Oertel, director of the Asia program at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said the German chancellery is facing criticism from those who argue “this is not business as usual, so the delegation should not look like business as usual.”
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But it would be a mistake, she said, to think that Germany is not wrestling with the lessons of the war in Ukraine. The debate is happening at nearly all levels of society, she said, from the government to business and academia.
“There is no analytical problem in terms of understanding what the problem is,” she said. “The challenge is what to do about it.”