In European politics it has become something of a truism that Germany is first among equals. Where Germany goes, so goes Europe, as a leadership role is ascribed to Berlin in a variety of issues from the Eurozone crisis of 2012 to dealing with COVID-19 and its economic consequences. There are signs that the German government, long reluctant to openly pick up the mantle of leadership, may be gradually warming to the idea of playing a leading role. To give a recent example, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s vocal response to the poisoning of Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny certainly suggests her government has concluded that it should confront Russian transgressions when it cannot count on Washington to take the lead in this respect.
Germany’s policies with regard to China may also shape the policies of the European Union (EU) toward the Asian superpower. For example, the German decision on whether and to what extent to allow Huawei to build the country’s 5G network is expected to reverberate across the EU, although by now its influence may be diminished as France, the U.K., and others have already made their choice. Regardless, a tougher approach toward China is taking shape in Berlin. Perhaps this is why Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s press conference with his German counterpart Heiko Maas on September 1 went less than smoothly.
On the same day, the German Foreign Ministry released the country’s new strategy on the Indo-Pacific region. It is far from the anti-China clarion call that some in Washington may have hoped for, but it nevertheless outlines priorities and interests that are sure to conflict with those of Beijing. Among other things, Berlin is concerned about the spread of disinformation by “authoritarian actors”; attaches great value to free and open seas, specifically mentioning the South China Sea and the Strait of Malacca in this regard; and wants to diversify its partnerships in the region to avoid “one-sided dependencies.”
A useful exercise for understanding the potential significance of Germany’s shifting attitude towards China for the EU’s attitude as a whole is to look at recent history. We have been here before, in the 1990s, and at that time Germany’s choice for a policy of trade-focused engagement with China strongly influenced a similarly constituted EU policy that is only now being adjusted, according to National University of Singapore scholar Reuben Wong.
In late June 1989, the 12 member states of the EEC, predecessor to the EU, imposed sanctions on China after the violent crackdown on Tiananmen Square on June 4. The core of the sanctions list was a commitment by the European states to diplomatically isolate China until it made a variety of improvements to its human rights record.
This commitment became problematic to the Europeans when the Chinese leadership did not budge on human rights, but China did begin to register rapid rates of economic growth starting in 1991.
At this point, the two leading countries in the EEC, Germany and France, went in different directions. France, whose leadership had responded especially sharply to the events of June 4, persisted in isolating Beijing and instead reinvigorated its historical relation with the Republic of China on Taiwan. In 1992, Paris solicited a furious reaction from Beijing when it announced the sale to Taiwan of 60 Mirage fighter jets. Relations between China and France, already cold, sank even lower as China ordered the closure of the French consulate in Guangzhou and ejected French companies from a number of projects. Relations remained poor until January 1994 when French Prime Minister Édouard Balladur committed France to refrain from future arms sales to Taipei during a state visit to China.
Germany took a different tack. As early as November 1991, when this was still very much controversial among its European partners, the German government organized a visit to China by its minister for trade and industry, Jörgen Möllemann, accompanied by 30 businesspeople. In 1992 it ruled out arms sales to Taiwan. In October 1993, Berlin published a paper outlining its new policy toward the Asia-Pacific. This policy focused on expanding economic relations with the region and substantially emphasized relations with China. The German government would aim for a stable, problem-free relation with Beijing, which meant restarting high-level visits and reducing pressure on human rights.
The difference in economic pay-off between the two approaches was clear: German exports to China almost doubled between 1992 and 1994, whereas those of France grew by only 22 percent in the same period. Other EU states began to emulate Germany’s China-policy of avoiding offense to Beijing and focusing on economic cooperation instead.
Germany’s apparent success in building relations with China influenced the EU as well. The European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, released a strategy for Asia in 1994 followed by a China strategy in 1995. Both documents were similar to Germany’s 1993 strategy insofar as they focused on expanding economic ties, and, in the case of the 1994 Asia strategy, put much emphasis on China. The EU’s 1995 China strategy declared its relationship with China to be “a cornerstone in Europe’s external relations, both with Asia and globally.”
France would come around to the German approach too. Balladur’s visit in 1994 marked the start of a reorientation of France’s China policy. In 1995 a new French government led by President Jacques Chirac announced an increased focus on Asia in French foreign policy. The following year Chirac’s foreign minister, Hervé de Charette, stated that China would be at the heart of this new foreign policy and specifically cited Germany’s approach to China as an example for France. The European Union, for its part, released another China strategy in 1998, which further accommodated Beijing on human rights while calling for enhanced engagement. By the late 1990s Europe’s China policy was, to quote Wong, effectively “Germanized.”
It would go too far to state that the EU’s China policy of over 20 years was the product of German choices alone for the simple reason that Europe does not live in a vacuum. The wider international environment exerted important influences as well, from U.S. President George H.W. Bush’ decision to hold back in isolating Beijing to the reluctance of Japan and other Asian countries to cut ties to the CCP leadership once it became clear that they had secured their position. These developments largely rendered the European sanctions regime moot. In addition, as I noted in an earlier article, the Chinese government conducted an effective counter-policy aimed at incentivizing engagement with business opportunities.
Nevertheless, the policy choices of the German government with regard to China clearly had a significant influence on other European governments as well as on the EU. If history does rhyme, as Mark Twain said, it would be wise to keep an eye on Germany’s evolving attitude toward China, and on the implementation of its new Indo-Pacific strategy.
Laurens Hemminga is a Ph.D. candidate researching EU-China relations in the Department of Asian and International Studies at the City University of Hong Kong.