A 3-day visit to China by Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel, who was accompanied by a sizable delegation, began on 6 September. The visit itself and its outcomes are quite telling and indicative of the ever increasing pace of the radical transformation the current world order is undergoing.
This is Angela Merkel’s 12th official trip to the PRC during her chancellorship. And the penultimate visit occurred only 15 months ago. It is worth highlighting that the Chancellor is viewed as the most important politician among her European counterparts in Beijing and, hence, she is invariably accorded a great degree of attention.
During each such trip Angela Merkel visits yet another key Chinese city in addition to Beijing. This time around, she travelled to Wuhan, an ancient Chinese city that, at present, serves as one of the centers of education and development of the latest technologies, and of German influence on the PRC’s economy.
This latest scheduled visit took place during a period when tensions in the relationship between the leading world power and both China and Germany rose suddenly and at the same time. This has helped put disagreements between Beijing and Berlin on issues in the key economic sphere on the backburner. It is also worth noting that not too long ago these differences in opinion seemed hard to reconcile.
We would like to remind our readers that we are discussing the cooperation between the second and fourth largest economies in the world. Bilateral trade between them has almost reached $200 billion this year, and has tended to increase on a yearly basis, with Germany enjoying a positive trade balance at the end of each of these years (in the order of approximately $20 billion). Notably, this is an unusual trend in comparison to those observed in the case of China’s other trade partners.
Although there is no need for a substantive discussion about the problems plaguing the Sino-American relationship in this article, it will not be superfluous to touch upon the most recent events in relation to the US-German relations, which, by and large, have been deteriorating over quite a number of years.
For instance, the US Senate foreign relations committee’s approval of a bill that would sanction companies involved in the construction of the Nord Stream 2 Pipeline, and an event in Poland to mark the 80th anniversary since the start of World War II have taken on a new significance. During the latter, there were once again demands (in the presence of the U.S. Vice President) from Warsaw for Germany to pay out giant compensation to Poland. After all, everyone has their priorities and that of the Eastern European limitrophe (from the times of the Treaty of Versailles) is money.
And although the U.S. Senate rushed to assure Germany that it had nothing to worry about, as any losses incurred due to a (potential) termination of the Nord Stream 2 project would be made up for by American liquefied natural gas, some in the German establishment probably thought: “That’s enough, we’re fed up now.”
The author of the article believes that the key hidden message to the world behind the entire visit to China by Angela Merkel was revealed on its very first day, when she said that Germany was open to Chinese investment and welcomed all PRC companies to invest in the country. Only a few months ago, it was difficult to anticipate such words from the German leadership towards China.
After all, one of the main problems plaguing trade and economic relations between Germany and the PRC was associated with Berlin’s fears that it could lose control over its own businesses during “shopping sprees” of leading Chinese companies in the EU. Germany was especially concerned about firms specializing in the manufacture of high tech products. In addition, the issue that the sale of Chinese goods on the European market leads to dampened prices remains current to this day.
Hence, two years ago the European Union opted to take measures (and notably, this was done at Berlin’s initiative) with the aim of raising tariffs on some Chinese goods and of limiting opportunities to acquire high tech companies.
It is also worth highlighting that the EU and the United State (despite the rising tensions in the trans-Atlantic relationship) recently agreed on measures that prevented the Chinese economy from being granted the “market” status. Beijing was meant to attain this status at the end of the 15-year “transition” period, established by the WTO at the time of PRC’s accession to this organization in 2001.
All of these problems facing the relationship between the PRC and the leader of the European Community bring into question the future of the key Chinese initiative that aims to bring back to life the Great Silk Road (in the form of the Belt and Road Initiative, BRI). The final destination of this route is meant to be Europe (just as 2,000 years ago).
Earlier on in the article, the author has already partially answered the question as to what could have happened during the global chess game to cause the leader of one of its key participants to utter the words quoted above. Still, the statement is too general in nature and for now it is hard to say what will happen next.
The Xinhua News Agency published a short report about what Angel Merkel and Chinese President Xi Jinping had discussed in addition to their clearly expressed intentions to foster bilateral ties in all the spheres between the two nations. What is notable from this article is that the two leaders used similarly worded statements to talk about pressing political and economic issues facing the world. For instance, words such as “unilateral” and “protectionism” among others were heard during the discussion.
Undoubtedly, these barely hidden, negatively worded statements were a message directed at Washington.
In China, the visit of the German Chancellor in itself, and the recently finished negotiations and their outcomes were viewed in a favorable light. In addition, the geopolitical importance of the trip was noted.
Notably, an editorial in PRC’s official daily newspaper Global Times, entitled “US attempts to woo Europe doomed to fail”, mentioned that the Chancellor of a leading European nation was in China at the very time when U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper was speaking about the Chinese threat at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI).
Finally, it is impossible not to notice that political opponents of Angela Merkel and the PRC (within Germany and particularly, outside of it) attempted to create the least favorable environment for the visit, discussed in this article. And events happening in Hong Kong in recent months were used to this effect.
However, it must be said that the topic of various “human rights violations” in the PRC is raised every time Angela Merkel heads to Beijing for serious talks. And during each visit she has had to make general statements about the expectation that some universal rights would be adhered to before starting her negotiations.
This time around, a 22-year-old leader of the opposition movement in Hong Kong demanded that China’s high level guest visit the city and get involved in the events happening there. He also reminded her about the similarity between the communist tyranny in GDR (the German Democratic Republic) and the situation in Hong Kong. Unfortunately, this local teenager, who once a week causes a litany of problems for the residents of Hong Kong, justifiably (according to current standards) does not seem to know about important stages in Angela Merkel’s life. She was a member of the Free German Youth movement (GDR’s equivalent of the Komsomol organization) during those “terrible times” and had an opportunity to receive a high quality education, which was most likely much better than that received by Hong Kong protesters.
Naturally, the aforementioned appeal was ignored by the German Chancellor. After all, she came to China to discuss issues of great magnitude, and not to respond to clearly provocative actions taken by these rogue youngsters protesting in defense of human rights. Still, the Chancellor did make the customary statement about the need to abide by the rule of law, and to use peaceful means to resolve the conflict in Hong Kong,
It is worth highlighting that this time around, the pressure exerted from all sides by “defenders of human rights” reached unprecedented levels. We can, therefore, only admire the resilience of this middle-aged woman, who is seemingly struggling with worsening health issues as evidenced by the fact that she sat on a chair while listening to national anthems at the airport in Beijing.
At the moment, it is hard to tell what the consequences of the latest move made by the two leading players (out of several) of the global chess game will be. Soon, the next equally important move is expected, when negotiations between its different pair of participants, i.e. the United States and China, resume.
Incidentally, German Chancellor Angela Merkel urged the PRC and the USA to end the ongoing trade war during her most recent visit to China.
Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.