The European Union is in the process of rethinking its relations with China, with an increasing awareness that China presents mounting challenges to core European values and interests. In Brussels, the issue of systemic rivalry has taken center stage in the China debate, while calls for cooperation and engagement remain. Germany is one of the leading member states that has shown support for change in the EU’s relationship with China, while simultaneously proving to be slow in adjusting its own China policy.
This article was originally published on ASPI Blog The Strategist and is reposted here under a Creative Commons license with the permission of the author.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s trip to Beijing in November, accompanied by a large business delegation soon after Chinese leader Xi Jinping further tightened his control over the country, raised questions across Europe about Berlin’s readiness to embrace change, and further complicates ties with fellow EU member states.
Berlin is in the process of drafting its first national security strategy and is working on a China strategy. Given the marked internal divisions among Germany’s economic and political elite on how to handle China, both strategies remain subject to difficult negotiations.
In light of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and Beijing’s diplomatic support to Moscow, which included Xi’s refusal to condemn Russian President Vladimir Putin’s brutal invasion, the EU has become deeply aware of its own vulnerabilities. There is fear in Europe, and across democracies globally, that Taiwan’s future – and the future of democracy in general – is under growing threat from an increasingly authoritarian Chinese leader.
Critically, Europe lacks a contingency plan for how to respond. Continuing visits to Taiwan by European parliamentarians, including those by German, Lithuanian and Spanish lawmakers this week, ensure that Europeans are far more likely to understand Taiwan’s situation, thereby contributing to the preparedness of EU member states should a crisis occur.
The visit by German lawmakers must be considered in this broader context and as an example of the well-established practice of parliamentary diplomacy that remains a normal feature of democracies across the globe. In addition to Germany, Lithuania, and Spain, this can and should prove a common way for Taiwan to engage with other partners across the EU. European lawmakers have in fact been visiting Taiwan for decades, with exchanges now returning to pre-COVID-19 levels.
When it comes to German-Sino relations, the reality is that uncertainty will remain, much to Xi’s chagrin, and will likely intensify as China grows more aggressive. Germany therefore must follow through with a strong strategy on security, one that will help deliver a common European message to China and that remains clear on Europe’s right to cooperate with Taiwan.
From Beijing’s perspective, keeping Germany close is important, so the Chinese leadership is unlikely to risk relations with a vital European partner, even in the face of the Bundestag’s growing willingness to engage with Taiwan.
For decades, the Chinese economy has benefited from German investment, in particular German technology. China is currently engaged in building up its own export base for higher-value products, becoming a stronger competitor in sectors that are key to Germany, such as automobiles.
This alone is reason enough for Germany to reconsider how it exploits its own leverage in ties with China. It also has the potential to support European convergence towards a rebalancing of bilateral ties in order to address the asymmetry that has dominated trade at the expense of European interests and to the benefit of China.
Given Germany’s strong desire to shape European foreign policy, it is Berlin’s responsibility to ensure that values are given the right consideration along with not just German, but European interests. Parliamentary diplomacy can contribute to sending a message to Beijing that Berlin not only has the right to cooperate, but is also ready to embrace Taiwan in line with the EU’s one-China policy, and will not hesitate to contribute to ensuring peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific. Coming from Germany, a crucial partner for China, such a message carries real weight and is necessary for a credible European shift on China.
What is most important is that Berlin’s responsibility lies in helping to deliver a common European message – that by engaging Taiwan, Europeans are looking after their own interests while also seeking to promote peace and stability for all in the region.
The Indo-Pacific is a region of strategic importance to Europe, a fact that Berlin has notably embraced with its own Indo-Pacific policy guidelines. So far, however, Germany has failed to Europeanise its China policy and push forward a common European agenda. In this regard, parliamentary diplomacy can help move the dial.