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The Economist
The Economist
15 Apr 2023

NextImg:In China, Germany’s foreign minister does not hold back—and is still welcomed
Europe | Clear words

In China, Germany’s foreign minister does not hold back—and is still welcomed

Annalena Baerbock made clear that any change to the status quo in the Taiwan Strait would be unacceptable


THE CHINESE government rolled out the red carpet for the visit of Annalena Baerbock on April 14th. Qin Gang, the Chinese foreign minister, spent around six hours with his German counterpart, which included a factory visit to a German company in Tianjin, his native city, a ride on a high-speed train from Tianjin to Beijing, a lunch and a press conference at a governmental guest house. Ms Baerbock also met Han Zheng, China’s vice-president, and Wang Yi, another senior foreign-policy official.

The exchange was always polite, even though Ms Baerbock had set a robust tone for her visit in a statement made as she left Berlin, when she talked about the “horror scenario of a military escalation in the Taiwan Strait” through which 50% of global trade passes every day. She said that she intended to underline with her visit the European view that a change to the status quo in the strait, let alone a military escalation, would be unacceptable.

Her press conference with Mr Qin continued in a similar vein. After the customary niceties, both showed why they are considered hawks in Sino-German relations in their respective countries. Ms Baerbock bluntly said that Europe became a world power 150 years ago through expansionism, aggression and colonialism, and that the world was closely watching which route China would pick to reach its stated goal of becoming a world power by 2049 (the 100th anniversary of the foundation of the People’s Republic). Its choice will determine to what extent Europe can count on economic ties with China in the future. Economic security is at the heart of the much-anticipated and delayed strategy paper on China that Germany has been working on for more than a year, with Ms Baerbock’s foreign ministry wielding the pen.

Mr Qin, for his part, reiterated China’s position that Taiwan is part of it. He blamed the current tension around Taiwan on separatist forces. Responding to Ms Baerbock’s expression of concern about the violation of human rights of the Uighurs, a Muslim minority in the western region of Xinjiang, he talked about “lies” that were being spread about Xinjiang. He said Ms Baerbock could come to the region at any time to see for herself. He ventured that there were no uniform standards for human rights in the world, and warned that China did not need to be lectured by the West. (Ms Baerbock retorted that the UN human-rights charter and the UN convention of human rights define universal human rights.)

Ms Baerbock also asked why China is not using its influence on Russia to end the war in Ukraine. Her counterpart did not respond, but said that China would not supply any weapons to either Russia or Ukraine. When it came to supplying dual-use products, his response was much vaguer.

Unusually for a foreign minister, Ms Baerbock emphasised business ties and “economic security” at nearly every turn. Fresh off the plane in Tianjin she visited Flender, a German Mittelstand firm that makes wind turbines. She also visited Vitesco, a German automotive supplier in the city, as well as a Volkswagen R&D centre in Beijing. Last year China was again Germany’s top trading partner, for the seventh consecutive year, with combined exports and imports of more than €298bn ($320bn), up by around 21% from 2021. Germany depends on China for the import of rare earths and other essential minerals.

Ms Baerbock insists that she does not want to decouple Germany from China but to “derisk” the relationship by diversifying supply chains away from the country to avoid dependencies on critical goods, such as preliminary products for medication. In her view German and European markets and imports are significant enough to give her a strong hand in what she deems a purely transactional relationship with the Chinese. Judging from the effort the Chinese government made to welcome her in Beijing, she seems to have a point. Despite the awkwardness that may have arisen from Ms Baerbock’s noted penchant for Klartext (clear words), and Mr Qin’s own robust response, the Chinese foreign minister is planning to travel to Berlin for more government consultations in June. He ended the press conference on a conciliatory note, closing with a “Danke!”.