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Sino-German relations: Not all hunky-dory

Alok Rashmi Mukhopadhyay was Associate Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • November 23, 2007

    The Sino-German bilateral relationship has run into rough weather in the last few weeks. What has been described as a relationship based on ‘strategic partnership’ experienced a big chill when the German Chancellor Angela Merkel met the Dalai Lama in Berlin on September 23. Chancellor Merkel seemed to provide at least two messages – one to her domestic constituency and the other to China.

    The first message appears to be that the present CDU-SPD (Christian Democratic Union- Social Democratic Party) coalition government’s China policy is in contrast to the earlier one of the SPD-Greens coalition led by Gerhard Schröder. Though the present ruling coalition has the Social Democrat Foreign Minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, a close protégé of Schröder, Chancellor Merkel wanted to assert to the junior coalition partner that regarding Germany’s relations with major partners – the US, China and Russia – the Chancellor’s Office is the ultimate authority.

    Secondly, Merkel also wanted to sound China that despite having a flourishing bilateral trade – in 2006, the total amount of Sino-German bilateral trade was 53 billion Euros (US $78 billion) – contentious issues would remain in the forefront of the Sino-German dialogue particularly with the present leadership. That Chancellor Merkel, unlike her predecessor, would not avoid raising controversial issues like, human rights, religious freedom, intellectual property rights (IPR) in China during her visits to China was an acknowledged fact. During her first visit (May 2006) she publicly raised the issue of IPR violations in China. Similarly her second visit (August 2007) was marked by some crucial issues like the alleged hacking of German ministries’ computers by Chinese experts. While at that point German automobile giants like DaimlerChrysler and BMW were contemplating to sue the Chinese carmakers for copying expensive German models, Merkel in person met four dissident Chinese journalists during her stay in Beijing. In a nutshell, the experience of the Chinese leadership with the new German Chancellor in the last two years has remained not at all Schröderesque.

    However by inviting the Dalai Lama to the Chancellor’s Office, Merkel has obviously taken a controversial step and a demonstration of a radical departure from the earlier practice is noticeable. As expected, the Chinese have issued demarches prior to the Dalai Lama-Merkel meet and taken some retaliatory measures by cancelling the Annual Sino-German Dialogue on Human Rights and Rule of Law (Rechtsstaatsdialog) scheduled to be held in December. Another fallout has been the cancellation of the scheduled visit of the German Finance Minister Peer Steinbrück to China.

    Two observations at this juncture can be articulated given the recent unpleasantness in the Sino-German relations. Also, one may ask whether this kind of underlying tension is unprecedented in Germany’s relations with China. Observers may recall the unfolding of similar events in 1996 during the coalition government of Helmut Kohl. The Friedrich Naumann Stiftung (Foundation) close to the Liberal FDP (Free Democratic Party), whose leader Klaus Kinkel was heading the Foreign Ministry, sponsored an international conference on Tibet. At the same time the German Bundestag adopted an all-party resolution condemning the ‘oppression of Tibet’ by the Chinese authorities. Similar Chinese reactions were experienced then which culminated with the suspension of the German Foreign Minister’s visit to China. While parallels should not be drawn, as a decade has already passed and the present bitterness has not yet reached the level of acrimony as in 1996, yet the historical context offers a useful reference point that China’s policy on Tibet remains unwavering. Tibet cannot be compromised however meaningful and promising the relations with strategic partners like Germany and the EU offer. This is unlikely to change in the future.

    In the coming years the EU-Chinese relationship would go through various twists and turns. The European nervousness over China is clearly visible. Chinese export of textile, toys, cars to Europe and the issue of piracy are making the Europeans uneasy and there seems to be no real counter approach to it. There are two distinct interconnected challenges facing Europe and its member nations. On the one hand, their traditional positions on various global issues have to be upheld, on the other, the present volume of trade with China has not only to be maintained but to be increased without antagonising Beijing. While the issue of European Union (EU) arms embargo on China is shelved and in all likelihood the ensuing EU-China Annual Summit in late November would not take any decision to lift the ban, some European lawmakers have started demanding that EU should support Taiwanese endeavour to enter the UN.

    Finally, the dynamics of the recent hardening of positions in the Sino-German relations is also to be seen against the backdrop of an increasingly personalised politics and political one-upmanship in Germany. Quite clearly, Foreign Minister Steinmeier wants to take initiatives and emerge from the shadow of Chancellor Merkel. Nevertheless it is more than sure till the ruling coalition is headed by Merkel, her viewpoint would strongly prevail. Moreover, the SPD is going through a rough patch after one of its leading strategists Franz Münterfering resigned recently. For Chancellor Merkel, the game is on with China. It will be interesting to observe the interplay between her personal conviction on foreign policy and the unrelenting pressure from the Chinese.