German Chancellor Olaf Scholz travels to Beijing this week in what is fast becoming a controversial trip, amid pressure both domestically and from within the EU to take a tougher line against China.
Scholz is the first Western leader to visit the Asian country since the COVID-19 pandemic began and will go with a delegation of German business leaders.
But many have questioned his intentions behind the trip, arguing he is prioritising economic ties at a time when the EU is looking to reduce its dependency on countries like China and Russia.
Germany already has strong trade links with Beijing with China being its second-largest export destination.
As a result, the idea of decoupling from China, like what is happening with Moscow following its invasion of Ukraine, is a virtual non-starter for many German businesses, with so many heavily invested in the country.
Pressure is growing though from within Scholz’s own governing coalition to deliver a tougher message to Chinese President Xi Jinping.
A new China strategy is also being devised in Berlin, which Germany’s foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, says needs to be more assertive.
In an interview with the newspaper Der Spiegel, she said this must be made clear to the Chinese leadership.
“We clearly stated in the coalition agreement that China is our partner on global issues and that we cannot decouple in our globalised world, but also that China is a competitor and increasingly a systemic rival,” Baerbock said.
“It is crucial to now make clear in China the messages that we laid down together in the coalition agreement.”
Samuel Cogolati, an MP in the Belgian parliament – who was sanctioned last year by Beijing – has questioned the timing of the trip.
“It is wrong for two main reasons. First, because it is not a united European front and I think that if Ukraine has taught us something, it is that we stand stronger when we, as Europeans, stand united when the 27 [EU countries] speak together with the same strong voice, and clearly that won’t be the case if Scholz goes on his own just to represent his country. So that is really unfortunate,” Cogolati told Euronews.
“The second reason is, haven’t we learnt anything from the past and anything from the dependency of Germany and other European member states on Russia. I think again we should rethink the way we look at China. China has changed enormously under Xi Jinping.”
China policy must not be ‘naive’
The European Commissioner for the Internal Market, Thierry Breton, recently warned member states not to be “naive” when it comes to Chinese investments in the bloc’s critical infrastructure.
The criticism could be seen as being aimed at Scholz, who last week allowed China to buy a stake in a terminal at the Port of Hamburg, a crucial trading hub for Europe.
The deal is contentious because, at a time when Germany and the EU are trying to wean themselves off Russian energy imports, it is seen as increasing dependency on Beijing.
“We should learn from the mistakes of the past,” Cogolati said. “We have seen that the dependency of European industries upon Russia was actually bad for our economies and was actually bad for our jobs.
“In Europe, we should really reinvest in value chains based in Europe, value chains that are sustainable over the long term. Clearly too big of a dependency on China is bad for our future as Europeans.”
According to Andrew Small, an expert on China at the German Marshal Fund, the main purpose of the trip remains shrouded in mystery.
“Everyone is saying this is the moment to be reducing dependencies on China. One should at least not be becoming more dependent and embroiled in a Chinese economic system that is going into this kind of orthotic struggle environment at the moment,” he told Euronews.
“That’s the thing that’s still slightly mystifying people about this trip because they haven’t given a clear message or really what the intent of any of this is yet.”
One line of thinking in Berlin will be to shore up relations between Brussels and Beijing after the relationship soured over the past few years.
Last year, a trade deal between the two was indefinitely suspended, following allegations of human rights abuses in China’s Xinjiang region and after sanctions were imposed on some European lawmakers.
Scholz now goes to China looking to mend fences. But some allies of the German Chancellor see the trip as more in his country’s interests rather than the EU’s.
Paris and Berlin are also in the middle of a downturn in relations, exemplified last week after President Emmanuel Macron snubbed a joint press conference between the two after a meeting in the French capital.
The French leader is said to have suggested a joint trip to Beijing, but ultimately that did not materialise, intensifying claims that the rift between the two European countries remains and also that the trip is not necessarily in the interests of the whole EU.
Small, however, said this type of decision is normal.
“In one way, it’s relatively normal that European leaders do their own bilateral visits. There is a national agenda, as well as the European one. I think the question from other leaders, as we saw in the European Council the other week, is, again, what has been coordinated by way of a European message?” he told Euronews.
“How strong is Germany going to be on some of the key messages if it looks as if it’s acting alone? How far does this look as if it’s it’s simply Germany pursuing its own bilateral agenda without reference to the wider European agenda? And this was not a visit that was coordinated clearly in advance, even within his coalition, let alone with other European partners. This was a decision taken by the Chancellery.”
With Xi Jinping having just secured a historic third term as Chinese president, potentially allowing him to rule for life, Scholz will likely see his trip through the prism of realpolitik in having to deal with him in the long term.
However, there are many outstanding points of contention between the EU and China, not least the situation with Taiwan and Beijing’s ambiguous position on the war in Ukraine.
Navigating these issues over the coming months and years will likely prove more difficult for Scholz than trade and economic decisions discussed with Xi this week.