Germany’s China dilemma takes on a new urgency

The writer directs the Center on the United States and Europe of the Brookings Institution

A striking phrase in the UK’s most recent national strategy document, the awkwardly named “Integrated Review Update 2023”, notes that Western allies are increasingly agreeing that “the prosperity and security of the Euro-Atlantic and Indus -Pacific are inextricably linked.” Everything Everywhere All At Once would be an equally accurate description of the current geopolitical mood. And that is why Germany, as it strives to help Ukraine fend off its Russian attacker, is currently racing to reduce its exposure to a disturbingly assertive China.

His most pressing concern: rising tensions over Taiwan amid growing talk of a US-China war. German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, who has just returned from a visit to Beijing, said a military conflict over the island would be a “terror scenario.”

Indeed. The Rhodium Group, an economic and political research firm, recently estimated that the global economic disruptions caused by the Taiwan lockdown could put “more than $2 trillion in economic activity at risk, even before accounting for the impact of sanctions.” international organizations or a military response”. ”. For Germany, one of the most globalized economies in the world, the effect would be similar to the impact of a meteorite.

Next on the list of worries is Beijing’s double play in Ukraine. In a long-delayed phone call Wednesday with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping pledged his commitment to sovereignty and territorial integrity, and warned against nuclear wars (att’n Comrade Vladimir) . Beijing has a vested interest in establishing itself as a peacemaker, let alone a rebuilder of Ukraine, especially if that comes at the expense of kyiv’s Western supporters.

At the same time, China has deepened its economic influence over Russia and quietly backed the Kremlin’s positions. Xi was feted for three days on a state visit to Moscow in March.

And then there are the daily headaches of increasing Chinese interference in Europe: lectures and threats from Chinese diplomats, unfair trade practices, espionage, misinformation and, lately, secret “shadow police stations” keeping an eye on Chinese expatriates.

Cue a peculiarly German signal of genuine alarm: a storm of newspapers from China. The country’s first national security strategy, promised by the stoplight coalition at its accession in December 2021, continues to circle the cabinet table in a slow holding pattern; there are credible rumors of a late May landing. However, drafts of China’s strategies have leaked from both the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Economy. Three major parties (CDU, SPD, Liberales) have published their own documents; the Greens haven’t, but they run the foreign affairs and finance ministries and are in the happy position of being able to whisper “we told you so” anyway. All four converge on a remarkably hardened vision of Chinese state capitalism and aspirations for global dominance.

Yet Germany’s Beijing dilemma remains a very real one. China is its most important trading partner, ahead of the United States. Berlin succeeded, with tremendous effort, in decoupling from Russian fossil fuels by 2022. A complete decoupling from China, by comparison, would amount to economic vivisection for Germany, and indeed for the rest of Europe.

But no one is advocating that, contrary to the blaring complaints from some sectors of China’s industry and lobby. The order of the day is to “derisk” (reduce dependency, especially in critical sectors of the economy like technology and rare earths) and deter or defend against harmful actions by China. That sharper take is leading Berlin to reexamine, among other things, recent plans to sell a minority stake in a Hamburg port operator to state-owned conglomerate Cosco, and the role of telecoms equipment from Chinese suppliers Huawei and ZTE in Germany. networks

More is needed, especially given the upcoming German-Chinese consultations in Berlin in June, and discussions of China’s European strategy at a meeting of EU leaders soon after. The transatlantic alliance, the EU and its member states, so effective in standing up to Russia together, have painted a pitiful picture of disunity in China. But the plan has now been provided in a remarkably forceful speech by EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. As for Germany’s lobby in China, which reportedly includes two former cabinet ministers, it has never been comprehensively mapped (unlike its Russian equivalent). Maybe it’s time for that.

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