After Merkel, What Future for Relations Between Germany and China?
In just over ten days, German Chancellor Angela Merkel will leave the helm of Germany after 16 years of government. The Germans are ready for federal elections during whose election campaign her potential successors have announced policies different from those adopted by Merkel, including in geopolitics and international affairs.
Global Times published an article based on an interview with Zheng Chunrong, director of the Center for German Studies at Tongji University, hypothesizing the possible future relations between Berlin and Beijing. The editorial expresses concern about a possible German hard line towards the Asian giant, which could jeopardize mutually beneficial cooperation between the two countries.
During the sixteen years of Merkel’s government, relations between China and Germany have seen remarkable development, thanks to efficient communication and pragmatic cooperation. According to Chunrong, bilateral ties have achieved multiple milestones, from establishing the China-Germany intergovernmental consultation mechanism to the bilateral comprehensive strategic partnership, not to mention the completion of the negotiations on the complete EU-China investment agreement.
While trade between Germany and the United States fell 10% last year due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, German trade with China experienced positive growth of 3% year-on-year. China has been Berlin’s leading trading partner for five consecutive years. The vast Chinese market has provided a vital opportunity for German companies brought to their knees by the COVID-19 pandemic. China overtook exports to the United States in 2020 and became the EU’s largest trading partner. More and more European companies have invested in China recently: from French giant Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy (LVMH) to German carmakers BMW and Audi.
According to the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China in June, 60% of European companies intend to expand their businesses in China in 2021, considering that profit margins in China are above the global average, compared to 38% of the last year. Despite the profits, the severe violations of human rights, the continuous attacks on democracy, and the media propaganda aimed at weakening Europe, as in the case of COVID-19, it has increased dissent towards Beijing.
The article published by Global Times attributes this sense of uncertainty to China’s rapid development, which has somewhat undermined the confidence of some countries that fear losing competitive advantage with China. The expert even suggests that China prepare to confront the EU, including Germany, as Washington could influence some European politicians. However, German diplomacy is unlikely to choose to sever ties with its leading trading partner. China and Germany have a lot to learn from each other, especially in green and new technologies.
The distorted understanding of China played a role in the shift of German diplomatic policy towards Beijing. China has safeguarded multilateralism and sought shared prosperity with European countries. Global Times suggests that Merkel, with 12 visits to China in 16 years and countless meetings with Chinese leaders, has set an excellent example of pragmatic cooperation with Beijing. Regardless of who wins the upcoming elections in Germany, one of the challenges for the next German leader is maintaining solid relations with China. The benefits the German economy has enjoyed so far are not lost. Still, it is also plausible that many European countries, starting from the center-right parties, adopt a stricter line, putting the defense of democracy and the values at the base of the European Union first.