German Chancellor Olaf Scholz makes a high-stakes trip to China this week, walking a tightrope between shoring up a key economic relationship and facing heightened concerns about over-reliance on authoritarian Beijing.
Scholz, accompanied by a delegation of business executives, will be the first European Union leader to visit the world’s second-biggest economy since 2019.
During the one-day trip on Nov. 4, he will hold talks with President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang.
But the visit has sparked controversy, coming as Berlin reels from an over-dependence on Russian energy imports that left it exposed when Moscow slashed supplies following its invasion of Ukraine.
That crisis has prompted soul-searching about whether German industry’s heavy reliance on China could again leave it vulnerable.
Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said she feared mistakes made in the relationship with Russia could be repeated with China.
“We must prevent that,” Baerbock – from the Greens, a member of Scholz’s uneasy three-party ruling coalition – told broadcaster ARD at the weekend.
The sensitivity was highlighted when a row erupted last month about whether to allow Chinese shipping giant Cosco to buy a stake in a Hamburg port terminal.
Ultimately, Scholz defied calls from six ministries to veto the sale over security concerns, instead permitting the company to acquire a reduced stake.
Some in government will view shoring up the economic partnership with China as crucial at a time Germany, battered by the energy crisis, is hurtling towards a recession.
Ahead of the trip, Scholz’s spokesman Steffen Hebestreit stressed the chancellor was not in favour of “decoupling” from China – but also wanted to “diversify, and minimise risks”.
For now, the German and Chinese economies remain deeply intertwined.
China is a major market for German goods, particularly for auto giants Volkswagen, BMW and Mercedes-Benz, and many jobs in Europe’s top economy depend directly on the relationship.
The worsening climate has rattled the nerves of German firms with investments in China. BASF chemicals giant boss Martin Brudermueller, who will accompany Scholz, last week urged an end to “China bashing”.
Hebestreit insisted the visit will “cover the entire spectrum of our relations with China”, including tensions in East Asia, and human rights.
He also said that Scholz was in close contact with international partners in Europe, as well as the United States, about the visit.
But some may see it as further evidence of Germany going it alone to look after its own interests.
Berlin has already raised hackles among fellow EU members by unveiling a 200-billion-euro ($198 billion) fund to shield consumers and businesses from surging energy prices, rather than acting together with the rest of the bloc.
“Western allies — of course in Paris but above all in Washington – see this trip very critically,” Heribert Dieter, from the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, told AFP.
“Germany is following its own path.”
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