On February 4, 2022, the Olympic Games in Beijing kicked off without any official representation from the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. In addition to those Five Eyes countries, very few states decided to follow the United States in its diplomatic boycott of the Games.
The German government has been very cautious to avoid using the term diplomatic boycott in regards to the Beijing Olympics. Even a couple of days before the Opening Ceremony, Chancellor Olaf Scholz continued to emphasize the need to coordinate the German government’s position with its European partners. Meanwhile, the new German foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, and the Federal interior minister, Nancy Faeser, declared not to attend the Games – the former because it does not correspond to diplomatic protocol and the latter because of the ongoing pandemic.
For close observers of German China policy, the behavior of the German government hardly came as a surprise. The reluctance of Scholz to join the boycott underlines that the new German government will not meet the expectations of those who envisioned an entirely new German foreign policy in a post-Merkel era. In particular, expectations in Washington about transatlantic coordination on China appear to be (partly) unrealistic, based on superficial analysis of German foreign policy, or driven by wishful thinking.
To illustrate, some reports about the China chapter of the new German coalition agreement attributed a degree of importance to the document that it simply does not possess in political reality. Also, the term “value-based foreign policy” appears to have been interpreted arbitrarily, while neglecting the complexities of China-Germany relations, or the complicated political context (which includes the inner workings of a three-party coalition, the respective party factions of the coalition, the Federal Foreign Office, and the European Union).
If transatlantic coordination on China has any chance of success, those realities will need to be acknowledged first. Regarding Germany, the following would need to be taken into account by the U.S. side.
Institutional Limitations for Value-Based Foreign Policy
In Germany, it is common that the Federal Chancellery (not the Federal Foreign Office) shapes foreign policy. During Angela Merkel’s tenure as chancellor, this was particularly true concerning China. The tough coalition treaty negotiations or recent reporting that the Federal Foreign Office will develop a new China policy led many to conclude that a Foreign Office led by the Green Party is going to fundamentally change German foreign policy. However, this interpretation ignores the institutional limitations of Germany’s foreign policymaking process.
If the minister of foreign affairs aspires to play a central role in German China policy, in-depth reform of the Federal Foreign Office would need to be implemented first. For instance, steps to make the Federal Foreign Office fit for dealing with China could include the following: First, generating and nurturing China specialists, including appointing external special advisers (in a long-term, not only ad-hoc, capacity). Currently, the Federal Foreign Office primarily relies on generalists and a lot of knowledge gets lost due to the rotation principle. Second, the ministry would need to expand financial and personal resources. The workload for German diplomats has increased significantly over the past years, while the necessary means to face those challenges remain limited. The ministry could also, third, introduce a more strategic outlook for the Federal Foreign Office altogether and, fourth, create a special representative for China who coordinates all China-related activities in the federal government and directly reports to the foreign minister.
It is important to note that several ministries in Germany hold significant China expertise and often follow their own independent China policy. To illustrate, the Federal Ministry of Economics and Climate Action has a more cooperative approach toward the PRC than the Ministry of Interior, which views China increasingly through the lens of a hybrid threat. The Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development competes with China “on the ground” regarding infrastructure projects and development cooperation in third countries. This diversification makes more coordination among Germany’s ministries urgently necessary. The diffusion of China-expertise among the German government may even present an opportunity for a multilevel approach toward China by utilizing different ministries and different political party positions strategically when engaging with Chinese counterparts – just as Beijing has been engaging European states in the past.
To become the key player in German China policy, the Foreign Office would need to transform into a facilitating platform and assume the role of strategic mediator between the various ministries. It would also need to work hand-in-hand with the Federal Chancellery. At this point, the Federal Foreign Office can fulfill neither of those tasks, thereby limiting its own ability to shape German China policy effectively and constructively.
Divergent Understanding and Application of Value-Based Foreign Policy Across the Atlantic
In terms of substance, more robust rhetoric toward the PRC and a “value-based foreign policy” do not necessarily mean that Germany’s China policy will line up neatly with Washington’s approach to Beijing. The devil lies in the details.
First, Germany (and other European states) will most likely apply value-based foreign policy by putting more emphasis on upholding international norms, multilateral cooperation, and defending the rule of law within those international institutions. We have seen this approach in the EU’s decision to launch a WTO case against China because of Beijing’s trade restrictions against Lithuania. Washington appears to be focusing on a more ideologically tinged “us-against-them” approach, as seen in the Biden administration’s Summit for Democracy.
Second, it is unclear whether Europe and the U.S. are on the same page when it comes to identifying what sort of challenge the rise of China represents to them. In the United States, the rise of China seems to be perceived as an existential threat to the Western way of life. From a European perspective, China is rather discussed as a substantial challenge for the future structure of the international order.
In other words, Washington appears to view the PRC as an ideological adversary in a struggle for global hegemony, while European capitals appear to view China primarily as a challenger of the international rules-based order (which has benefitted European states tremendously). It is, therefore, difficult to agree on the simple yet crucial question: If we coordinate our China policies, what is our common goal? What kind of China do we want?
More Policy Coordination on China Within the EU Does Not Necessarily Mean More Effective Transatlantic Cooperation
China-Germany relations will be shaped by the European dimensions of partnership, competition, and systemic rivalry. This further underlines a general understanding in European capitals that geopolitical shifts such as China-U.S. competition are not just occurring around them; Germany and Europe are themselves part of these changes. In this regard, the focus on European (strategic) sovereignty is crucial, particularly in the sense of establishing and defending European rules, norms, and standards as well as future industries – especially against China.
In the area of targeted sanctions over human rights violations, more transatlantic cooperation appears highly realistic. In other policy areas, the U.S. and the EU will face each other as competitors. For instance, the Global Gateway Strategy can be regarded as one of the central instruments to establish a geopolitical EU commission. Despite sharing the intention to offer an alternative to China’s BRI with President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better World (B3W) initiative, in practice, American and European firms will face each other primarily as competitors in the implementation phase of infrastructure projects.
Also, Germany will need to engage in a balancing act between value-based foreign policy and the declared goal of more EU-level policy coordination. It is unlikely that all EU member states will follow the German proposal for a value-based China policy. To illustrate, Greece and Lithuania are both members of the EU and they follow a very different approach toward the PRC. Transatlantic coordination on China (another declared goal of the new German government) adds an additional layer of complexity. It could be helpful if decision-makers in Washington viewed the ability of the EU to seek compromise not solely as a weakness but rather as a key asset of the EU.
It might be wise for Washington to moderate expectations toward a new German or EU China policy. European leaders are not blindly going to follow Washington’s approach vis-a-vis the PRC, particularly, since the return of former President Donald Trump in 2024 appears to be a realistic scenario. Specific policy goals should be defined by both sides of the Atlantic to avoid unrealistic expectations and to make sure that they are on the same page.
Despite the above-mentioned obstacles, transatlantic policy coordination on China remains essential for the shared goal of maintaining the international rules-based order. If both sides were able to agree on a realistic burden-sharing arrangement (e.g., Europe has a comparative advantage in international diplomacy, de-escalation, and reform of multilateral institutions) transatlantic cooperation on China could turn out to be impactful, long-lasting, as well as in the best interest of both parties.