By going alone to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on November 4th with many business leaders, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz triggered many criticisms. Whether on the European political scene or even within his government, the charges immediately piled up: “lone rider” for French politicians, cynical “neo-mercantilism” for the German Greens, comparisons with the former Chancellor Schröder, outrageously pro-Russian, etc. In a few hours the ordinary critics of German business diplomacy were summoned.
If the indictment is recurrent, is it consistent? Can we ask Germany both to assume its power on the political level and not to promote its own interests on the geopolitical level?
A recurring indictment, reactivated by the war in Ukraine
The visit of the German Chancellor was carried out on Friday, November 4, according to a format adapted to the “zero” COVID policy of the People’s Republic of China: the official delegation composed of leaders of emblematic groups (BASF, BMW, etc.) remained only 11 hours on Chinese territory, confined to a “health bubble” and subject to medical checks. But, if it was particularly brief, this first trip by Chancellor Scholz to the PRC immediately reopened the long list of classic grievances against German foreign policy.
On the one hand, Germany’s European partners, first and foremost France, did not resist the temptation to denounce an isolated, purely bilateral and uncoordinated action. This criticism is all the stronger since the European Union has developed a dialogue format for two decades, the EU-China Summits, which held their 23rd edition on April 1, 2022 by teleconference. Coming from Paris, the criticism is all the more justified as President Macron took great care, during his first term, to associate Chancellor Merkel with his contacts with the PRC. At a time when the Union has explicitly designated China as a “systemic rival”, when strategic cohesion is asserting itself in the face of the war in Ukraine and when the all too famous Franco-German couple is going through difficulties, asserting a purely national agenda betrays, in the Chancellor, a worrying non-cooperative impulse.
On the other hand, several voices were heard to point out the political short-sightedness of “German neo-mercantilism”. For example, the Greens of the German Foreign Minister, Annalena Baerbock, publicly questioned the signal of support that this trip sent to a regime in security hardening, only a few days after the XX Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) which marked a new stage in the stiffening of the regime. A new coronation of Xi Jinping, this congress, highly publicized and commented on in Europe, was designed to underline that the page of reforms and openness had been turned in China.
In short, Germany would sacrifice its political positions in the name of business: the protection of ethnic minorities in Xinjiang, the safeguard of international law concerning Taiwan, respect for fundamental rights, etc. all these principles would be sold off by the Chancellor’s trip in the name of the very strong economic relations forged by Germany. At a time when a global confrontation seems to be taking shape between the camp of the democracies and the blocs of the autocracies, this displacement is indeed troubling. Especially since it had been preceded by an announcement breaking with European economic sovereignty: the German government has just authorized the entry of the maritime giant COSCO, operator of the port of Piraeus in Greece, into the capital of a terminal in the port of Hamburg, a city-Land of which Mr. Scholz was mayor for a long time.
To these recurring if not classic criticisms was added a concern fueled by the war in Ukraine. Indeed, it revealed the limits and dangers of the commercial relations established by Germany for the benefit of its economic model but to the detriment of its global sovereignty. Two choices had presided over the German geo-economy: stable and inexpensive energy supplies from Russia on the one hand and high-end exports (automobiles, machine tools, medical equipment, etc.) to China. Since the first of these choices has now been invalidated by the war in Ukraine, was it not appropriate for the new chancellor to revise the second? The concern is legitimate: are German industrial circles still listened to in Berlin despite their strategic short-sightedness? Couldn’t Olaf Scholz have changed his perspective, informed by the current impasse in relations between Russia and Germany?
In short, this displacement has often appeared to be both damaging to the values and cohesion of the European Union, detrimental to the reconstruction of the Franco-German relationship and unfavorable to German economic sovereignty.
The unthought of an automatic indictment
This indictment comes as no surprise. Nor to shock. It is supported by a well-documented economic reality: Germany and the PRC have for two decades placed their bilateral relations under the aegis of economic exchanges. Germany has since before the COVID pandemic become the main trading partner of the PRC: in 2021, it was its first supplier and its second export market behind the United States. In addition, the major German groups have made considerable investments in the PRC, in particular BMW which has just relocated the production of its electric vehicles from the United Kingdom to China. Finally, German retail chains rely heavily on their Chinese suppliers for low-cost merchandise. The economic symbiosis, strong but asymmetrical, obviously places Germany in dependence on the authorities, large groups and consumers of the PRC.
However, these criticisms are paradoxical if we examine the dilemma in which German power finds itself caught. On the one hand, accusations of economic cynicism cannot be focused on Germany without some bad faith: the United States itself, in a “Cold War” with the PRC, continues to trade with it at a very high level ; several European states continue to court Chinese capital to make investments at home. In short, the diplomatic purity demanded of Germany in this case is not respected by any of its great critics.
This criticism should also be tempered by the statements of the Chancellor himself in the media before and after the visit as well as during his official talks: while he is taking his first steps in China, while his interlocutor is at the height of his power domestic politics and as German investment in China has recently resumed, creating vulnerability, he has issued a series of statements on all the topics that embarrass, offend or even irritate Beijing: repression of Muslim populations in Xinjiang, respect for Taiwan’s sovereignty, North Korea’s nuclear power and the moderating influence that China should exert on Russia. While far from heroic, this position cannot be described as cynical: defending the interests of big business German did not prevent Olaf Scholz from firmly recalling international principles and European values in Beijing.
Moreover, the indictment against German diplomacy may well be commonplace in Europe, but its automaticity does not preserve it from contradictions. Thus, the Europeans have an interest in the German Chancellor being deprived of room for individual initiative. Should it – precisely because it leads the leading European economic power – always align itself with the foreign policies of the other Member States of the Union? This, however, would underscore his political weakness. Consequently, one of two things: either we demand that the German leaders take on a certain leadership on the world stage and we grant them their own diplomatic line, or we demand that they align themselves with French or other positions and we stop repeating to them the imperative to leadership. Is it in the interest of Europeans for the new Chancellor to be diplomatically strong, to follow in the footsteps of Angela Merkel’s 12 trips to China, capable of engaging in real discussions with world powers and capable of relaying of growth to Germany? Or do the Europeans have an interest in the German Chancellor remaining indefinitely in the shadow of the French President and respecting to the letter a European diplomatic consensus which is always slow and very often impossible to find? To deprive Germany of a national diplomatic line is to prolong Germany’s period of geopolitical minority indefinitely and to postpone the moment of transition to adulthood. Consequently, the displacement of November 4 should also be considered as an attempt to manifest a leadership German on the world stage.
The aporias of German foreign policy
The reactions to Chancellor Scholz’s trip to China remind us how German foreign policy is a recurring target of its partners. They recall the fire of criticism that Chancellor Willy Brandt came under when he set up theOstpolitik with regard to the communist bloc from 1969 to 1974. There again, Germany had been accused all at the same time of betraying the camp of the democracies, of breaking Western unity and of preferring trade to geopolitical confrontation.
But these reflex indictments would benefit from ensuring their consistency.
On the one hand, Germany is invited by its partners to assume more of its power. For the United States, this means contributing even more to the budget of the Atlantic Alliance and to the purchase of American equipment. For France, this often comes down to asking Germany to make a substantial commitment to external operations (OPEX). For member states in the east of the continent, this leads to demands for greater German involvement in continental security. According to this line, Germany should cure itself of what made its strength after the Second World War: its pacifism, its budgetary rigor, its economic seriousness, its business diplomacy.
But, on the other hand, as soon as Germany promotes its international interests, it is immediately accused by its own partners of cynicism, disloyalty or even irresponsibility. In short, it is criticized for preserving its industrial and commercial power, forging strong bilateral relations or even for appearing alone on the international scene.
The paradox is recurrent because it is rooted in the prejudice that Germany is a political dwarf coupled with an economic giant. The whole question is to know whether to regret it or whether to rejoice in it. And on this point, the critics of Germany are not in perfect good faith.
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Scholz in China: A Geopolitical Witchcraft Trial?
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