During her 16 years as Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel faced a complex, multipolar world that challenged her on various fronts. Perhaps one of her primary strengths was succeeding in remaining loyal to Germany’s alliance partner, the United States, while keeping precarious relations with Russia halfway intact and even establishing an essential partnership with China while integrating the latter into global and regional responsibility.
Merkel had primarily seen China as an economic partner, indispensable for Germany’s and Europe’s prosperity, a sales market for German companies and their proclivity for exports.
She withstood the binary choice to either be on Washington’s side or Beijing’s. Her approach was pragmatic, not ideological. Unlike some of her international partners, Merkel’s realpolitik resulted in a reluctance to criticize China over human rights, Hong Kong, or Taiwan. Germany’s economic interests had to reign supreme.
However, Germany now appears dedicated to conducting a paradigm shift on China with Merkel’s departure.
Germany’s Social Democrats (SPD), Green Party (Greens) and Liberal Democrats (FDP) have entered into a coalition government. The three parties recently presented their long-awaited agreement, defining how Germany intends to reposition itself domestically and abroad.
The Greens, who will lead the foreign ministry with Annalena Baerbock as its minister, have pledged a foreign policy that will be “value-based.”
On December 1, Die Tageszeitung published an interview with Baerbock in which she elaborated on her vision. The overall message: Germany will take a tougher stance on China and address grievances unequivocally.
“In the long run, eloquent silence is not a form of diplomacy, even if it has been seen that way by some in recent years,” Baerbock said. Dialogue is a central component of international politics, she acknowledged, “but that does not mean that one has to gloss over issues or keep quiet.” A value-based foreign policy must always be an interplay of dialogue and rigor, Baerbock emphasized.
Baerbock even suggested an import ban for products from Xinjiang while not categorically ruling out a boycott of the 2022 Olympic Winter Games in Beijing.
Essentially, Baerbock summarized the coalition’s agreement, in which China’s internal affairs will henceforth play a more significant role in Berlin. China is mentioned by name 12 times in the coalition agreement. For comparison, in the previous three coalition agreements, spanning over the past 12 years, China was named a total of 11 times.
The agreement states that the relationship with America was to be “renewed and dynamized,” but that policy toward China was supposed to be shaped “in partnership, competition, and systemic rivalry.”
It’s the first time China has been referred to as a “systemic rival” in a German coalition agreement, thought it has become an increasingly standard approach in Brussels.
Hence, it is only logical that the agreement also commits to working out a “comprehensive China strategy” as part of the joint EU-China policy, “to be able to realize our values and interests in the systemic rivalry with China.”
Taiwan is also mentioned, as reintegration into China ought to only occur “peacefully and by mutual agreement.” The human rights situation in and around Xinjiang is also explicitly named for the first time. Hong Kong receives attention as well.
In addressing these points, the future German government deliberately accepted conflict with China’s leadership, in contrast to its predecessor. Unilateral and China-friendly policy decisions quasi-dictated by Berlin now seem archaic. Instead, the new coalition is seemingly inclined and determined to emphasize a common strategy with the EU while undoubtedly continuing to set the tone in this regard.
This change is likely to be met with open ears within the bloc – except the member states participating in China’s Belt and Road Initiative. After all, not every state in the European Council agreed with the German-dominated China policy. European business circles cannot be pleased with the status quo, either, as EU companies consider themselves disadvantaged in the Chinese market, while Chinese companies benefit from essentially unrestricted access to the European internal market.
Moreover, the allegations against China’s conduct in Xinjiang had already led the EU Parliament to freeze the investment agreement with China, which Merkel had pushed.
With its new focus on China, Germany is ostensibly following Washington into systemic conflict with China. Since taking office, U.S. President Joe Biden has called for Europeans to join a united front against Beijing and stand up against its trade practices. With Merkel retired, Biden is now destined to get his wish – not least because two parties are now entering the government that have not been in power for an extended time. The Greens and the FDP have to establish themselves internationally and offer new perspectives. Therefore, allowing the transatlantic partnership to play a more prominent role again makes sense, and in the geopolitical dispute between China and the United States, the new German government is now taking an unambiguous stance.
However, as apparent as the intentions seem to be, details about how and to what extent value-based foreign policy will be conducted remain unclear. Will there simply be harsh criticism of China? Is economic pressure an option? Will Germany attempt to isolate China from the West?
So far, no answers have been provided by either Baerbock or Germany’s next chancellor, Olaf Scholz. However, one point is certain: Sixteen years of economic cooperation between Germany and China under Merkel cannot simply cease – not without detriment to Germany’s economy.
China has already demonstrated an unwillingness to endure criticism and interference in Chinese affairs. Canberra is witnessing this first hand after Beijing hit Australia’s economy over fraying relations between these two nations.
However, another factor will determine the degree to which Germany will tolerate a dispute with China.
In Germany, the Kanzlerprinzip (chancellor principle) applies. According to Article 65 of the Basic Law, the chancellor determines the guidelines for government policy and is responsible for it. This so-called Richtlinienkompetenz (guideline competence) includes the specification of a framework for government action, which the individual ministries fill out with content, including the Foreign Ministry under Annalena Baerbock.
Within these guidelines determined by the chancellor, each minister manages their ministry independently and under their own responsibility, the so-called Resortprinzip (departmental principle).
However, the degree to which the chancellor principle impacts everyday foreign policy depends on various factors, including the personality of the respective chancellor. For example, Konrad Adenauer, Willy Brandt, Helmut Schmidt, Helmut Kohl, and especially Angela Merkel set powerful accents in German foreign policy, while chancellors Ludwig Erhard and Kurt Georg Kiesinger were quasi-irrelevant. This also corresponds with the trend that all chancellors discovered foreign policy as a field of their own profiling and gradually steered decisionmaking from the foreign ministry to the chancellery, something Merkel championed to an unprecedented extent and the primary reason why the office has increasingly lost its appeal.
As Germany’s former finance minister and vice chancellor, Olaf Scholz has proven himself internationally and is considered capable and pragmatic, similar to his predecessor. His election campaign was dominated by the attempt to appear as Merkel’s natural heir, someone qualified to prolong the continuity with which Merkel had governed rather successfully. These characteristics had previously stopped Scholz from becoming his party’s chair. He simply was insufficiently progressive and ideological.
The prospect that Olaf Scholz will hence engage in direct confrontation with China over the Greens’ vision seems somewhat inconceivable at this stage. Moreover, it seems unlikely that Scholz will stop the trend wherein the chancellor makes all foreign policy decisions and generally sets the tone, particularly since actors such as Russia and China will undoubtedly be inclined to “test” Germany’s new chancellor. A lack of presence on the international stage and in the decision-making process could be perceived as a weakness Scholz can ill afford.
This puts Baerbock in the ungrateful position of conducting a balancing act: She has to reconcile the demands of her party’s value-based foreign policy for a tougher line toward China on human rights issues while adhering to the chancellor principle, imposed by the pragmatist Scholz.
The noble idea of value-based foreign policy in post-Merkel Germany could hence quickly reach its limits and face reality before it even commences, the coalition agreement’s goals notwithstanding.