Chinese premier in Germany as Western mistrust mounts

Li will also visit France for climate financing summit

BERLIN: Germany’s president Monday urged Beijing and Washington to boost dialogue, as he hosted Premier Li Qiang at a time when China’s policies on Russia, trade and human rights are receiving an increasingly hostile reception in the West. Li, who was named China’s prime minister in March, is on a two-nation visit which will also take him to France for a climate financing summit hosted by President Emmanuel Macron. German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier stressed the importance of ties between China and the United States for “global security and cooperation,” wrote his spokeswoman Cerstin Gammelin on Twitter.

“He called for the strengthening of communication channels between both countries,” she added, after months of US-China tensions. Steinmeier also urged Beijing to use its “political weight and influence on Russia to bring about a just peace” in Ukraine, said Gammelin. Li’s European tour came as US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was on a high-stakes trip to Beijing, where a glimpse of optimism was seen with President Xi Jinping assessing that “some progress” was made. In Berlin, Li and his cabinet will meet Chancellor Olaf Scholz and his team for so-called government consultations on Tuesday, when he is expected to outline China’s “hopes to deepen and expand its relations” with the EU heavyweight.

But Germany’s first national security strategy, published days ago, could set the tone at the talks. The blueprint stridently accused China of acting against German interests, putting international security “under increasing pressure” and disregarding human rights. At the same time, it underlined the necessity of getting Beijing’s cooperation on global issues like fighting climate change. Scholz himself had said the message sent by the document is that “China’s integration into world trade and world economic relations should not be impaired”. “But at the same time the security issues that arise for us must be taken into account.”

Beijing has bristled at being described as a “partner, competitor and systemic rival” in the text, saying such labels would only “push our world towards a vortex of division and confrontation”. Push to diversify Export giant Germany, by virtue of its economic might, has always enjoyed special ties with China. Under former chancellor Angela Merkel, Berlin took a pragmatic approach of talking up economic opportunities while keeping less flattering opinions on rights and freedom behind closed doors. That made China a key market for Germany’s exporters while also allowing Berlin to take in prominent human rights activists like Liu Xia, apparently without suffering any retaliatory consequences.

But the coronavirus pandemic raised questions about relying on a far-flung partner with its own huge domestic needs for health essentials. And Russia’s war on Ukraine turned the approach of economic rapprochement on its head. With China refusing to distance itself from Russian President Vladimir Putin, concerns mounted in the West over its motives and reliability. The European Commission last week warned that Chinese telecoms giants Huawei and ZTE posed a risk to the EU’s security and said it would stop using services that relied on the companies. Diversifying has now become a buzzword for Germany’s elites, with Berlin wooing more partners beyond the world’s biggest powers.

‘Economy in trouble’ Inconveniently for China, the shift is happening when the Asian giant is experiencing an economic slowdown. Sluggish exports and domestic demand are weighing on China’s post-COVID economy. No surprise, then, that Li had picked Germany as his first stop abroad, analysts said. Li is “in charge of fixing the economy, which is in trouble”, Ian Johnson, China expert at the US think tank Council on Foreign Relations, told AFP. “So it makes sense to go to China’s biggest trading partner in Europe,” he said, adding that Beijing needs “further investment and better business ties with companies, such as BASF, VW and Siemens”.

Thorsten Benner, director of the Global Public Policy Institute, told AFP that it was “open whether Germany continues to play the game of pretending there is broad agreement with Beijing”, in a meeting he called a “stress test”. Alternatively, it could choose “a new path of straight talk and limiting the final statement to areas where there is a genuine path forward for cooperation”. – AFP

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