Skip to content

Germany’s National Security Strategy and the China Challenge

Image Source: Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland/Flickr

After lacking clear guidelines for years, Berlin has clearly outlined its national interests and the means to protect and realize them.

This article was originally published in the Diplomat and is republished here with permission.

On May 14, the administration of Chancellor Olaf Scholz adopted Germany’s first national security strategy. Until now, the Ministry of Defense has been primarily responsible for developing German security and defense policy. The new national strategy places security policy issues on a more comprehensive and interdepartmental footing. This comprehensive approach shows that national security issues have been politically upgraded in Germany, a consequence of the political “turning of times” –­ “Zeitenwende” – prompted by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year.

In the context of the German government’s announced but much-delayed China strategy, the national security strategy can provide a first indication of the direction in which Berlin is moving in its dealings with Beijing. While the security strategy contains explicit statements on China, the first official list of Germany’s interests, the German security environment, and the planned measures to improve the security situation are also revealing indicators from which conclusions can be drawn about the federal government’s view of China.

The strategy defines Germany as an actor anchored in the Euro-Atlantic alliance, whose international role is values-based and whose actions serve to protect and strengthen democracy, the rule of law, and human rights at the international level. In this context, there is a clear reference to individual liberties. The strong reference to values is in line with the feminist foreign policy recently presented by German Foreign Minister, Annalena Baerbock. Furthermore, the German interest in preserving the international order created after World War II is emphasized.

Building on the definition of Germany and its values and interests as the basis for political action, the strategy constructs a security policy environment for Germany. It begins by acknowledging the fact of an already existing multipolar world order, while avoiding naming the poles. The strategy then accuses China of wanting to change the current world order in its own favor, which clearly contradicts Germany’s stated interests.

The strategy describes China as a partner, competitor, and systemic rival. This threefold division is by no means new. For many years, it has been the standard way of portraying China in Germany and Europe. The strategy notes that the weight of the competitive component has increased in recent years, which is why China and Germany are in a state of intensified rivalry. The finding of a competitive force is based on the assessment of Chinese political actions, such as the pursuit of a changed world order and the use of economic weight to achieve political goals, based on German values and interests.

Hence, the strategy concludes that China’s actions threaten international stability. Notwithstanding all the criticism, the strategy notes that China is an actor without which international problems cannot be solved and that China should therefore also remain a partner of Germany. The basis for such a partnership, however, remains open in view of the harsh judgment leveled at Beijing.

The security strategy formulates clear goals for countering the identified threats to German interests. In addition to the commitment to NATO and the alliance with the United States, the strategy calls for the rapid implementation of the European Union’s Global Gateway Initiative and the Partnership for Global Infrastructure Investment, as well as better protection of critical infrastructures and dealing with critical dependencies. A clear focus on China is evident in all three measures.

The Global Gateway Initiative is to provide up to €300 billion by 2027 for investments in the digital, energy, and transport sectors of emerging and developing countries, as well as their health, education, and research systems. The initiative is intended as a direct competitor to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and is intended to make the EU more of an explicitly geopolitical actor. The Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment is a joint initiative of the G-7 countries and is also designed to compete with the BRI.

What emerges clearly is that the security strategy perceives the BRI as a threat to German interests and wants to create counterweights. The strategy also echoes the same sentiment with regard to the declared protection of critical infrastructure, since the purchase of infrastructure by Chinese companies, e.g. a terminal in the port of Hamburg, has recently been the subject of strong disputes in Germany and within the Western alliance.

Finally, the strategy’s goal of addressing critical dependencies, both in terms of raw materials and other elements in supply chains, clearly addresses economic relations with China. In this context, the security strategy suggests using German foreign trade promotion to push the private sector to diversify supply chains and sources of imports to spread risk. This would mean changing the law to make doing business with China less attractive for German companies, which have been reluctant to downsize their China operations.

The perception of China as a current threat to German interests is a common theme in the new German security strategy. The assessment of China and its policies is based on an exclusively value-based analysis, which, it seems, does not even attempt to include China’s interests in the analysis. While China is implicitly granted the role of one pole in a multipolar world order, there are many reasons to assume a further cooling in Sino-German relations.

Although the German government continues to view China as a partner, the strategy also formulates the principle of selecting partners in the future primarily based on values. It, therefore, appears unclear how the partnership with China will be shaped constructively in the future. If the positions outlined in the security strategy become the basis for Germany’s China policy in the coming years, this could lead to an increase in tension between Berlin and Beijing and make the goal of economic cooperation more difficult.

Written by

Tim Hildebrandt


Tim Hildebrandt is a Ph.D. candidate in political science and economics at the University of Duisburg-Essen and a Research Associate at the Ruhr West University of Applied Sciences. His research focuses on the intersection of politics, economics, and geography.