Berlin, December 2020: Angela Merkel is on defensive mode, facing critical questions in parliament about her flagship initiative in China, the massive investment agreement between the European Union and Beijing.
“We saw in Hong Kong that China doesn’t even abide by treaties that are subject to international law,” said Margarete Bause, the Bundestag’s human rights spokeswoman for the Green Party – the party that has emerged as the German side most critical of China.
Merkel’s answer is a window into her entire approach to China, which is increasingly being challenged for failing to live up to the moment.
“We observe with great concern that, in Hong Kong today, the ‘one country two systems’ problem is very fragile, to put it mildly,” Merkel said. “And, due to the contradiction between the values we have and the interests we have, we repeatedly have to consider tradeoffs when we make political decisions.”
Merkel’s bold start
That’s a long way from Chancellor Merkel’s early days. Six months after taking office, he went to Beijing in May 2006 with a bold new message. Unlike his predecessor Gerhard Schröder, he speaks publicly about human rights – and is actively trying to bring about change.
“We will not only follow the development of civil society in China, but also use forms of dialogue to try to develop it towards a more open and freer direction,” he said.
Noah Barkin is one of the leading observers of German-Chinese relations
These are times of optimism. “There are still high hopes that China is heading towards a less authoritarian country,” Noah Barkin, a senior visiting fellow at the German Marshall Fund and one of the leading observers of German-Chinese relations, told Merkel’s Last Dance. , a DW podcast series exploring the chancellor’s legacy during his final year in office.
The Dalai Lama ‘slap in the face’
Initially, in 2007, Merkel took the boldest step of all, inviting the Dalai Lama to meet at the chancellery in Berlin.
“It was seen in Beijing as a real slap in the face,” said Barkin. “Diplomatic relations with Berlin are basically frozen for six months.”
Reflecting on the meeting later, Merkel said it had sparked a healthy debate. “The good thing is we … will never allow values and interests to enter into unacceptable competition from each other, but we always try to find the right balance,” he said.
But, Barkin said, the experience had an impact: “I think it’s kind of a cry for Merkel. She changes her tone in public when it comes to human rights.”
The onset of the global financial crisis further exacerbated the balance between values and interests.
“The Chinese economy is becoming a vital crutch,” said Barkin – an economy that German companies were turning into something more like a catapult. German exports to China surged more than 70% in the two years from 2009 to 2011. And, when the financial crisis turned into a euro crisis, China became a valuable investor in eurozone bonds.
“I think this colors Merkel’s view of China,” Barkin said. “He’s still talking about Chinese aid during this time of existential crisis for Europe.”
Angela Merkel received a lot of criticism for hosting the Dalai Lama in Berlin in 2007
Germany-China strategic partnership
As economic relations grew, so did political engagement. First full-scale intergovernmental consultation between Germany and China occurred in 2011, with Prime Minister Wen Jiabao coming to Berlin with an entourage of ministers.
Wen hinted at quid pro quo. “China hopes with all its heart to take a direction, with Germany, where the major powers respect each other so that we can create a win-win situation,” he said.
For Barkin, the message was clear: “When China talks about respect in bilateral relations, what it really means is not wanting other countries to interfere, as it says, in domestic affairs.”
Xi doubled down
The balance of power in that relationship shifted rapidly – in favor of China – when, in 2012, a new leader rose to the top in Beijing. Xi Jinping then established a new era, doubling authoritarianism.
Xi’s crackdown political freedom in Hong Kong and repression against Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang has crushed lingering hopes that China is on the path to a political opening. And China’s increasing assertiveness has raised the prospect of a confrontation with the United States that could define this century.
Merkel’s final move
Despite these concerns, Merkel is moving ahead with strengthening economic ties, culminating in an investment agreement reached by the European Union and China in late 2020.
For Merkel, it’s about securing better deals for EU companies doing business in China. But it gave him a barrage of criticism – not only for ignoring human rights concerns, but for ignoring pleas from the new Biden administration to wait and consult, and thus gave China a diplomatic victory in overcoming the maneuvers of the trans-Atlantic partnership.
Barkin points out that this is Merkel’s conscious move. “I think there is a desire to avoid a second Cold War. He is clearly determined to play a moderating role in the US-China confrontation to prevent China’s isolation or detention, and to try to tie him into a global rules-based order.”
German dual dependence
“I think it’s getting harder and harder to sit on the fence,” said Barkin. “There will be a very difficult set of choices for countries like Germany.”
It is a choice that may fall to Merkel’s successor – hopefully Armin Laschet, recently elected chairman of the Christian Democrats, or Markus Söder, currently the Bavarian state prime minister.
Neither are unlikely to be looking for significant changes to Chinese policy. But they may find that they are being forced to change course – either by possibly their coalition partner, the Greens, or by geopolitical realities.
How is Merkel doing?
The optimism for Merkel’s first trip to China in 2006 is long gone. But, Barkin said, it embraced Beijing so strongly in 2009-11 that it put Germany on its current path. “I think Merkel has stuck to what many now see as an ancient approach to China,” he reflected.
Although such criticism continues to grow, Merkel herself shows no signs of changing direction in the final months of her term.
“I don’t consider it very sensible to look back 15 years and consider today’s results,” he told reporters in 2020. “I believe that it is both right and important to seek good strategic relations with China. But you can ‘not’ have any. illusion – you have to measure something against reality. ”
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