'Tough balancing act': Chinese, German leaders hold talks

AFP , Tuesday 20 Jun 2023

Chancellor Olaf Scholz hosted Premier Li Qiang for talks on Tuesday, seeking to recalibrate cooperation between Germany and China after Berlin branded Beijing a "systemic rival".

China - Germany - talks
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz sits on the left side of the table with German delegation, in front of Chinese Premier Li Qiang and the Chinese delegation as they take part in the German-Chinese government consultations at the Federal Chancellery in Berlin, Germany, Tuesday June 20, 2023. AP


Li is on his first trip abroad since he was named premier in March and tasked with shoring up China's sputtering post-Covid economy.

But unlike previous visits by Chinese dignitaries, when pragmatic German leaders eager to expand business ties with the Asian giant rolled out the red carpet, Li's trip comes as Germany is rushing to diversify its trading partners.

Burned by its reliance on Russian gas and hurt by supply chain disruptions during the pandemic, Germany is intensifying its efforts to "de-risk" from China.

Meeting Germany's President Frank-Walter Steinmeier on Monday, Li said China was ready to work with Germany to contribute to "global stability and prosperity".

Li was given a full military honours welcome by Scholz on Tuesday, but when they sit down for talks, Germany's first national security strategy, published days ago, will set the tone.

The blueprint accused China of acting against German interests, putting international security "under increasing pressure" and disregarding human rights.

But it also underlined the necessity of getting Beijing's cooperation on global issues such as fighting climate change.

Beijing has bristled at being described as a "partner, competitor and systemic rival" in the text, saying such labels would only "push our world towards a vortex of division and confrontation".

'Stress test'

Tuesday's talks between the two governments is "a stress test on whether genuine partnership between Berlin and Beijing is still possible", Thorsten Benner, director of the Global Public Policy Institute, told AFP.

"It's open as to whether Germany continues to play the game of pretending there is broad agreement with Beijing... or whether it chooses a new path of straight talk and limiting the final statement to areas where there is a genuine path forward for cooperation," he added.

China has been accused of stirring regional instability with threats against Taiwan and of rights abuses against Uyghurs, while refusing to distance itself from Russia's Vladimir Putin.

The latest report published Tuesday by Germany's intelligence agency also cited China as the "biggest threat in relation to economic and scientific espionage and foreign direct investments in Germany".

On the other hand, it is "important to continue to have a relationship of trust" with Beijing, news magazine Der Spiegel noted.

"Managing this balancing act without suffering a hernia is a real challenge" not just at Tuesday's talks, but "in the years and decades to come", it said.

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, one of the most strident critics of Beijing's human rights policies, has signalled that the way to handle the delicate situation was to boost cooperation with China on areas on which both sides can agree, such as the climate.

But on economic issues, Scholz's government has repeatedly underlined that ending reliance is the key.

Speaking at a major German industry event on Monday, Scholz said the "G7 has no interest in preventing China's economic rise".

"At the same time, we are looking carefully at preventing dangerous economic reliance in the future."

German industry however finds Berlin's pivot easier said than done.

After all, China remains Germany's biggest trading partner.

"That means that if there are major upheavals between China and the West or even a war over Taiwan, the German economy as a whole will be severely endangered," said Spiegel.

NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg urged Germany to learn from the lesson of Russia's aggression, noting that many had previously thought that buying gas from Russia was "a purely commercial decision, only to learn the hard way".

"We must not make the same mistake once again with other authoritarian regimes, not least China," he warned.

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