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German Foreign Minister Visits Beijing Amid European China Debate

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German Foreign Minister Visits Beijing Amid European China Debate

Discussions are taking place in Europe and Germany on how to deal with China, but also on which path of development to take in the coming decades, in the context of a rather shaky confidence in the U.S.

German Foreign Minister Visits Beijing Amid European China Debate
Credit: Depositphotos

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock is currently visiting China as part of a longer trip to East Asia, to be followed by trips to South Korea and Japan, where she will attend a meeting of G-7 foreign ministers. The official communication from the German Foreign Office already indicates the strained situation in which Baerbock’s inaugural visit to China is embedded, describing China as a “partner, competitor, and systemic rival.”

The visit to China is likely to be followed particularly carefully, both in Asia and the West. While the German government coalition, consisting of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), the Liberal Party (FDP), and the Green Party, of which Baerbock is a member, has recently come under strain, what really tightens the current situation are the statements made by French President Emmanuel Macron after his recent trip to China.

On his return flight earlier this week, Macron stated in an interview that Europe must reduce its dependence on the United States to avoid being drawn into a confrontation between the U.S. and China over Taiwan. Macron stressed that Europe must achieve strategic autonomy and become a third superpower. While this statement is in line with a long-standing French position that Europe should seek spheres of influence outside Europe, become a great power, and pursue geopolitical interests, the statement has caused considerable unrest.

In particular, the reference to Taiwan has raised eyebrows in the United States. Macron was heavily scrutinized in the press for his statements, which came amid intensive Chinese military drills in the Taiwan Strait. U.S. politicians from the opposition Republican Party accused the French president of betraying Taiwan. Considerable criticism has also come from Central and Eastern European countries, who point out that U.S. support is now needed more than ever in the context of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Considering that much of Eastern Europe itself was a victim of Russian imperialism until less than 35 years ago, a focus on protection by the U.S. through NATO in the context of the Russian invasion of Ukraine seems only logical.

In Germany, Macron’s statements drew heavy criticism at first. The opposition conservative Christian Democratic Union party (CDU) lambasted Macron’s statements for weakening the European Union and for contradicting the statements made by the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, during her visit to China just a week earlier. Von der Leyen had taken China to task for influencing Russia in the context of the Ukraine conflict and warned strongly against supplying Russia with arms. Members of the FDP and SPD cautioned against the West becoming divided over China and considered Macron’s approach not to be a wise strategy for Europe.

However, both in Germany and the EU some voices have been less critical of Macron’s statement. The SPD parliamentary group leader Rolf Mutzenich, for example, agreed with Macron in principle and hinted at criticism of Baerbock, who in the past had been critical of China and, from China’s point of view, had expressed herself in an undifferentiated manner. Following Baerbock’s call to Beijing to de-escalate the tense situation with Taiwan during her visit to China, the right wing of the SPD warned Baerbock against pursuing an “anti-China strategy,” as this would have massive negative economic consequences for Germany. In the same breath, the SPD members called for an end to the confrontational attitude toward China and for the dismantling of barriers to trade and investment.

Even from Baerbock’s own party there are calls for a more relaxed approach to Macron’s statements, as a bipolar world would be in neither Germany’s nor Europe’s interests. Meanwhile the president of the European Council, Charles Michel, suggested that Macron’s position is far from an outlier among European leaders and reflects a growing shift in Europe.

This split position on Macron’s statement, and by extension, also on China policy in Germany, has deep historic roots. Germany’s post-war policy of Western integration, which has led to good relations with the United States and NATO membership, can be traced back to the CDU. It is thus no surprise that the CDU has strongly criticized Macron’s statements. However, the statements of some members of the SPD and Greens who have come to Macron’s defense reflect some recent changes in the German political landscape. First, trust in the U.S. deteriorated during the Trump administration and fears over a second Trump administration  are fueling German and European debates about strategic autonomy.

Second, Germany has undergone considerable political change in the context of the Russia-Ukraine war, indicated by the notion of the Zeitenwend (“turning of the times”). In particular, the Greens, whose party emerged from a pacifist movement, have taken a more engaged political stance in foreign policy.

Traditionally German foreign policy was mostly concerned with fostering beneficial economic relationships and checkbook diplomacy. In this context, a strong reliance on the United States for military protection was a feature of German politics only questioned by political parties at the fringes. With the official adoption of a heavily normative feminist foreign policy under Baerbock, it seems that the German political elite is willing to break with long-standing traditions and pursue a more engaged foreign policy.

This situation creates a field of tension for Europe in general, and for Germany in particular. On the one hand, Berlin wants to pursue a more normative foreign policy, and in this respect, China is to be strongly criticized. This would put Germany in alignment with the United States, which under both Trump and Biden has been pursuing a much more hostile policy toward China. On the other hand, in the context of a second Trump administration, taking an autonomous position independent of Washington seems increasingly attractive for some German and European actors, such as Macron. This, in turn, could be in Beijing’s interest, as it might weaken the U.S. if Europe adopts a position that diverges from the U.S. in the context of China policy.

The current situation is very diffuse: Europe is at a crossroads about its relations with China, but also with the United States. In the next few years, the citizens of Europe will vote in their national and European elections on whether they are prepared to accept a loss of prosperity to adopt a more normative position vis-à-vis China. But they will also vote on whether they want to become strategically independent from the U.S.