Olaf Scholz’s China trip may repeat Germany’s mistakes with Putin, critics fear


BERLIN – German Chancellor Olaf Scholz is due to travel to Beijing on Friday, 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 under his ability a clear and clear message was delivered to his own country and to the West in general.

Scholz will be traveling with a delegation of business leaders, and the economic emphasis worries some observers – a little too similar to former chancellor Angela Merkel’s mercantilist approach to foreign policy, which cemented Germany’s reliance on the cheap energy of the Russia and which left Berlin painfully exposed when relations with Moscow deteriorated due to 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 doesn’t appear to be out of step. Most alarming, they say, was his willingness to sell a stake in a German port terminal to a Chinese firm, despite warnings from German intelligence and furious opposition from within his cabinet. Scholz is about to give permission to take over a German microchip company in China.

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“There is a bit of a shock across the continent. And this serves to share China’s interest in Europe,” said Bonnie Glaser, director of the Asia Program at the German Marshall Fund in the United States.

“There is concern in Washington, too,” she said. “The United States is feeling that this is a time where we all need to be aligned.”

Scholz has tackled a zeitenwende, or “turn,” in German foreign and defense policy since the start of the war in Ukraine. He said the invasion, as well as changes in China itself, forced a fundamental change in the German government’s strategy towards Beijing. However, he is known as a cautious leader. With a recession looming, he doesn’t seem keen to significantly disrupt Germany’s relationship with its biggest trading partner.

Writing Wednesday in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, the chancellor dismissed the notion of “decoupling” from China and instead spoke of eliminating “risky dependencies.” He said he intends to press Chinese President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang for reciprocity in areas such as market access and intellectual property protection.

Although the German government said that coronavirus restrictions would make it difficult to hold meetings with activists and non-governmental organizations that European leaders usually do on such trips, Scholz promised not to “ignore controversies,” including “respect for civil liberties and political and ethnic rights. minorities,” China’s threats towards Taiwan and its tacit support for Russia’s aggression in Ukraine.

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Under Xi, China has grown more authoritarian at home and more assertive on the world stage. He has launched a brutal crackdown on Uyghurs and other Turkish minorities, crushed dissent in Hong Kong and raised the specter of military force to take over Taiwan.

Scholz’s critics questioned the message of approval a trip to Beijing on the heels of Xi’s appointment to a third term, cementing his position as the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong, may have conveyed.

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In Germany, allowing the Chinese shipping giant Cosco to buy a stake in a port terminal in the northern city of Hamburg seemed to be “another gift to China to create a reasonable atmosphere”, said Roderich Kiesewetter, a Christian Democrat on foreign affairs in the parliament. committee.

He informed German government ministries last month against the port market. German intelligence chiefs have also issued 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 domestic intelligence chief Thomas Haldenwang. Bruno Kahl, of the German equivalent of the CIA, said security services were “very critical” in selling important infrastructure to China.

In the end, Scholz – who is also a former mayor of Hamburg – pushed through a compromise that allowed Cosco to buy a reduced 25 percent stake, rather than the previously planned 35 percent, which would have been a blocking minority.

A senior State Department official told The Washington Post on Wednesday that the compromise came after the concerted involvement of US officials in Berlin.

“The embassy was very clear that we strongly suggested that China would have no control interest, and, as you can see, when they adjusted the agreement, no,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of the anonymity to discuss. sensitive diplomatic talks.

The official noted that the majority of stakeholders “are still in the city of Hamburg and remain the port itself, which is important for the standards we are trying to set among all the G-7 countries and for the world.”

China’s foreign ministry reacted angrily on Thursday to the suggestion that the United States played a role in the deal.

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“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 engage and interfere,” spokesman Zhao Lijian told reporters in Beijing.

There was also widespread discontent in Germany about the compromise. Both the Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs wrote letters of protest, according to Der Spiegel. The acquisition “disproportionately increases China’s strategic influence on German and European transport infrastructure and Germany’s dependence on China,” Foreign Office State Secretary Susanne Baumann wrote to Scholz’s chief of staff.

Another US official suggested that the sale of the port “confirms that Scholz and his team have not learned from Russia and Ukraine.” The official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, said the arguments about the risks felt like a “rehash” of discussions about Nord Stream 2, the controversial Russian gas pipeline that German officials have supposed years as one thing. deal with private commercial business.

The potential takeover of Dortmund, Germany-based microchip company Elmos by a wholly-owned subsidiary of China’s Shai Microelectronics comes as the United States moves to cut off China from high-tech 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, Handlesblatt newspaper reported.

Together, the actions have fueled a sense of confusion and frustration with the German leadership from partners such as the United States and fellow European Union members, who would like to see more coordination from Berlin.

“It is very important that the behavior of the member states towards China changes … in a way that is more coordinated than being led by individuals, because China clearly wants us to be,” said a trade leader the EU’s Thierry Breton in an interview with Reuters on Monday.

Scholz says he coordinated his trip to China with the EU, France and the United States. “When I travel to Beijing as German chancellor, I also do it as a European,” he wrote in his op-ed on Wednesday. “Not speaking for all of Europe, that would be wrong and presumptuous. But because German China policy can only be embedded in European China policy.”

French newspaper Le Monde reported that President Emmanuel Macron planned to accompany Scholz to China, just as Macron and Merkel jointly hosted Xi in 2019. But the French government insisted on a later trip to Beijing, to avoid a perceived endorsement of Xi’s new consolidation of power. , Politico reported. Scholz seems to have rejected Macron.

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The visit also comes just before this month’s Group of 20 summit in Bali, Indonesia, where US officials are preparing for a possible meeting between Xi and Biden – and are keen to signal that Europe , the United States and other allies united in the face of the Russian war.

The State Department official said Scholz’s op-ed explanation of his China trip was consistent with US preferences, but that Washington would be watching with great interest.

“What’s important to us is that it sends strong messages about all the things that we were willing to do together if China gets involved, but were concerned about China’s coercion and other behaviors,” a said the officer.

Last April, when the top officials of China and the EU held a virtual summit, the Chinese side published a readout while the call was still in progress, prompting Western news organizations to gloss over Beijing’s talking points as news alerts and letting China control the situation.

With Scholz on Beijing turf, it could be difficult for the German side to resist such maneuvers, which could give China a propaganda win by allowing the country to cast Scholz’s visit as a German effort – as said one viewer. — “kiss the ring.”

The Communist Party of China’s press control is likely to spend the next few weeks touting Scholz as a sign of China’s rise and seizing on signs that Germany is at odds with its allies. The Global Times has already picked up on reports of a split between France and Germany over China policy, blaming the split on European “sour grapes”.

Janka Oertel, director of the Asia program at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said the German chancellor was facing criticism from those who claimed that “this is not business as usual, so it should not look like business as usual. usual on the delegation.”

But it would be a mistake, she said, to think that Germany is not struggling with the lessons of the war in Ukraine. The debate is taking place at almost every level of society, she said, from government to business and academia.

“There is no analytical problem in understanding the problem,” she said. “The challenge is what to do about it.”

Rauhala reported from Brussels and Hudson from Munster, Germany. Rick Noack in Paris contributed to this report.


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