Grading the voice of Europe – Merkel in China

Merkel’s recent visit to China was meant to assure Chinese risk-averse leaders that Europe is back on track. But the visit was also a part of the mosaic that makes up European foreign policy towards China.  

The first place abroad that Germany’s helmswoman, Angela Merkel, went after hammering through an intra-European agreement on the fiscal pact was China. Merkel’s charm offensive was meant to assure Chinese risk-averse leaders that Europe is back on track. Additionally, the visit was also a part of the mosaic that makes up European foreign policy.

In the European Council on Foreign Relations, we have just published our yearly scorecard over European foreign policy. We evaluate both the achievements of the EU institutions but also of the 27-crowd of bilateral diplomacy (yes, it is not all about EU foreign and security policy chief, Catherine Ashton) and how Europe deals with large powers like China. We try to categorise every member state on whether they are leader, slacker or just supporter on an EU-policy area. Let us look at Merkel’s visit in this perspective.

By default and by size, Germany has been among the leaders on EU’s China policy but recently questions also abound whether Germany is unmooring from Europe and joining China in a detached ‘entente commerciale’ bolstered  by a record hitting trade volume of €140 billion – way ahead of the two other big Europeans, France and the UK.

In the G20, Germany has affinity with China on blocking critique of current account surpluses –something both countries boast full coffers of.  On the other hand, American and some European allies see these surpluses as adding to fundamental imbalances. Dealing with Libya, Germany ended up in the China-abstention camp. And last year, during EU’s crisis-year with postponement of its annual yet ceremonial summit with China, Germany instead held its largest bilateral government-to-government meeting with China – an honour normally reserved for Western allies.

In the eurocrisis, Germany has been moulded into Europe’s indispensable nation, so for Europe, it is increasingly important how Germany treats its relationship with China. For this, Merkel’s visit provides a new weather report for interpreting Germany’s policy.

Merkel’s main mission was inspiring confidence that Europe can handle its crisis. Wen Jiabao has exhorted Europe to get ‘its house in order’. Merkel’s reply was the newly agreed belt-tightening fiscal pact. The aim was to create new confidence in Europe and to entice China to divert a larger part of still-bulging currency reserves into the euro’s debt rescue. In return, China’s Wen reciprocated with signalling the possibility of larger support for Europe’s ailing rescue fund, EFSF – still with only half-filled coffers. The assurances of Germany, the Eurozone’s real lender of last resort, matter to China. Wen blunted too high hopes, by adding that China does not have the capacity to ‘buy up Europe’. Still, this might have paved the way for further Chinese announcements as the EU-China summit is due soon – symbolically on Valentine’s Day.

On foreign policy, Merkel’s stance stood in contrast to the more wobbly German performance last year. Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle’s April visit came quickly after Germany parted with European allies in the UN Security Council over Libya and the head of Germany’s diplomacy was paraded – unwillingly, admittedly – by China as the new kid on the block in the gang of BRIC+ abstention-seekers.

Instead, this time around, Merkel came with strong messages about a united Europe’s reinforced oil sanctions on Iran – most likely the main foreign policy challenge of 2012. China is now parting from EU and the US with its calculated resistance to further sanctions.  Syria was also highlighted and the need for a UN reaction to the on-going violent clamp-down on protesters, although it impacted little on China’s (and particularly Russia’s) veto on 3 February blocking an international reaction response.        

On human rights, Merkel showed consistency, (speaking with ‘the same values and convictions as in Germany’, in her own words) in contrast to the slick ‘business is business’ approach of her predecessor, Gerhard Schröder. At a leading Chinese government think tank, she spoke of the ‘inalienable’ human rights and brought it up in her political talks with Wen and Hu including the situation in Tibet, which has fallen off the European radar. Nevertheless, the Chinese authorities managed to thwart her meeting with a respected Chinese defence lawyer, Mo Shaoping.  

In a more subtle way, Merkel might also have sponsored the more liberal side of the Chinese leadership by meeting with Wang Yang, the party head in Guangdong and contender for a top-tier in the coming leadership reshuffle. He has just problem-solved Wukan – a large local protest – through transparency and local participation in contrast to the more repressive methods championed by other parts of the Chinese top brass.   

It was also in Guangdong that the crowd witnessed huge smiles from both Merkel and Wen on a joint inspection of a tunnel drilling machine based on German technology. The machine has been in service ploughing the underground beneath Beijing and Shanghai. High technology is what the Germans have and what the Chinese want. German companies are a booming success right now, yet the Chinese government is climbing up the value chain rapidly raising expected competition but also big unsolved questions of protection of intellectual property rights and on involuntary technology transfers.  Thus, Merkel issued a strong plea for giving German companies equal opportunities to local business. In return, Merkel promised openness for Chinese investments in Germany and the whole of the European Union. Such a type of deal could be sanctified by an EU-wide investment agreement between EU and China – and a potential outcome at the coming EU-China Summit.

Merkel most certainly showed Germany in a leader position to follow our scorecard terminology yet questions – similar to the eurocrisis – abound if other Europeans are willing to follow. Another question is if the German push improves negotiations for the EU heading towards its symbolic St. Valentine’s Day Summit with China.

The article first appeared in E!sharp.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Former Senior Policy Fellow

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