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Between the Superpowers: What Is Germany’s China Policy?

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Between the Superpowers: What Is Germany’s China Policy?

Those hoping the new National Security Strategy would iron out the contradictions in Berlin’s China policy will likely come away disappointed.

Between the Superpowers: What Is Germany’s China Policy?
Credit: Depositphotos

On June 14, the time had finally come: the German governing coalition under Chancellor Olaf Scholz adopted Germany’s first National Security Strategy. After months of wrangling within the coalition, the paper has been celebrated as an expression of the much-vaunted political “turning of the times,” or Zeitenwende, in Germany’s foreign and security policy. But those that have been waiting for clarity on how the German government intends to deal with China and the Indo-Pacific in the future might be disappointed.

Already in March 2019, the EU Commission had published a paper in which China was simultaneously dubbed a partner, competitor, and rival. German interest groups had a decisive influence on this triad and have been repeating it like a prayer wheel ever since. Yet the National Security Strategy paints an even clearer picture: Beijing is pushing its claim to global influence. It is changing the international order from within. In doing so, China is using its economic dominance to achieve political goals, disregarding human rights, and increasingly endangering security and stability at regional and international levels.

However, despite this, Germany’s position is more complicated than it seems, and it remains unclear what precise goals Germany intends to pursue to achieve this balance between cooperation and confrontation with China.

In the 70-plus-page security strategy, China is mentioned only six times (twice on page 12 and four times on page 23). Germany is concerned by some of China’s behavior on the global stage and by human rights violations at home that are contrary to German interests and values. The National Security Strategy does not elaborate, but it is safe to assume that these include the treatment of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang, as well as China’s economic coercion of Lithuania or Australia, issues that have sparked widespread debate in Germany about the future of its cooperation with Beijing.

And yet the strategy makes clear that Germany cannot do without China. Berlin insists that cooperation should and will continue to be sought on global challenges.

The reality on the ground, meanwhile, further complicates Germany’s China equation. Chinese Premier Li Qiang visited Germany last week, highlighting the importance of the relationship. A preparatory visit to Beijing in May by Jens Plötner, Scholz’s national security adviser, was described by all sides as positive and friendly.

Li’s visit came not long after the decision by Scholz to override concerns by the Federal Foreign Office and allow Chinese involvement in the Hamburg port terminal Tollerort. A less discussed, but perhaps more important, development was COSCO’s withdrawal from the Port of Duisburg in October 2022. While both sides agreed not to disclose the reasons, in practical terms, it reflects the Chinese abandonment of Duisburg as an important terminus of the Belt and Road Initiative.

The China-Germany relationship is being shaped by attraction and rejection in the geopolitical concert of powers. Indeed, the most important geopolitical complication for Germany remains the great power rivalry between the United States and China. The long-anticipated visit by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken to Beijing, which overlapped with Li’s arrival in Germany, was seen as an important effort to de-escalate China-U.S. tensions. Their relationship is being watched very closely by NATO ally Germany, with both great powers trying to get Berlin on their side. Washington has upped the pressure on Berlin to exclude all Chinese technology, especially Huawei, from the construction of 5G networks. Germany has not endorsed this position, at least not officially, but recently debates about stricter regulations have resurfaced.

Taken together, it seems that Germany is attempting a delicate balancing act. Berlin has been hesitant to comment publicly – and more concerningly, even to articulate to itself internally – how to walk the tightrope between the superpowers. The bureaucratic coordination of the National Security Strategy was so tricky that it had to be postponed several times. Similarly protracted has been the fine-tuning of Germany’s China strategy. This is being drafted in Berlin under utmost secrecy, which illustrates the sensitivity of the issue.

But observing the current trends, there seems to be an ongoing tension between Germany’s bilateral approach to China and its more global strategy. This duality is also reflected in the gap between Berlin’s Indo-Pacific Strategy presented in September 2020 and the new National Security Strategy. The Indo-Pacific Strategy calls for Germany to establish active regional cooperation to counter climate change, preserve biodiversity, and control arms. Other goals include reducing market asymmetries and developing a code of conduct between China and ASEAN member states for the South China Sea.

Yet this sentiment is missing from the National Security Strategy regarding both China and the Indo-Pacific. The latter is mentioned in the Strategy in only one sentence as being “of special significance.” Moreover, the document is devoid of goals and measures in the region with regard to Germany’s defense capability. One looks in vain for ASEAN in the entire strategy.

Yet German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius publicly announced at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore in early June that a frigate and a supply ship are to be sent to the Indo-Pacific in 2024. The vessels are to conduct joint exercises with partner navies and signal Germany’s commitment to maintaining the rules-based international order, including freedom of navigation. Given the rhetorical discrepancy on the importance of the Indo-Pacific to Germany, this deployment appears to have only symbolic value.

The Scholz government’s rhetoric toward China has become much sharper than that of the previous administration under Angela Merkel. However, in terms of substance, the much-heralded Zeitenwende in Germany’s relations toward China has not yet evolved. Superpower competition between the United States and China is likely to intensify, and both superpowers will remain indispensable axes of security and prosperity for Germany.

If Berlin wants to pursue a principled yet independent line in its relations with China, clear guiding policies are crucial. These should include tangible commitments and goals to be achieved, such as trade provisions, academic exchanges, environmental protection, cooperation along the Belt and Road Initiative, or even confidence-building between the nations’ militaries.

As the geopolitical tensions rise, Germany is uniquely placed to lead and offer an alternative to the zero-sum game of superpower competition, setting an example for and cooperating with many other countries stuck between the superpowers. But, to do so Germany’s traditional ambiguity regarding its China policy may no longer be enough. More coherent thinking bringing together a values-based vision and a practical roadmap for cooperation needs to be developed.