Angela Merkel in China: A trip fraught with difficulties

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The German chancellor is a regular visitor to China. But amid economic and political unrest, her upcoming talks with the Chinese leadership are expected to be far from straightforward.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel was welcomed with military honors in China on Friday with a business delegation in tow, hoping to secure an economic agreement. During the state visit, in addition to conferences with China’s political leadership, Merkel also has meetings planned with Chinese students.

But relations with the People’s Republic are more complex than ever before, with Merkel under pressure to confront China over the controversy surrounding Chinese involvement in Hong Kong and Xinjiang.

Human rights: Hong Kong

Shortly before Merkel’s visit, she received a plea for help in an open letter from Joshua Wong, a leader of the protest movement in Hong Kong. There are notable, but isolated cases, where Germany got involved in human rights issues in China. During her last visit to China, Merkel managed to help secure the safe passage of Liu Xia, widow of the late dissident and Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo.

The German foreign minister has also been critical of China’s actions in the western province of Xinjiang, where an estimated one million Muslim Uyghurs have been detained against their will. But discussions with Chinese authorities about human rights abuses are becoming more difficult and infrequent.

Threat of an economic slump

“China is a strategic partner, but also a competitor,” Merkel said of their relationship. China is Germany’s largest import market and, after the USA and France, and also its most important export market. In 2018 the two countries traded goods worth almost €200 billion ($221 billion).

But increasingly China is seen not only as Germany’s most important trade partner but also as an economic rival. At the beginning of the year, the Association of German Industry warned of systematic competition with China’s economic model. Fear of an economic downturn could affect Germany’s efforts to improve trade relations with China.

China’s new global infrastructure project, the so-called Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), is their attempt to build trade relations with Africa and Europe. Some EU member countries, such as Greece, have already agreed to cooperate in the project. There are fears that through this initiative China will increase not only its economic influence in the region but also its political sway.

Concerns are also mounting that the ongoing trade dispute between the USA and China could negatively affect Germany’s relations with both countries. Following the US’ withdrawal from the nuclear deal with Iran, China has offered economic incentives to Iran to come back into the agreement. Donald Trump has put pressure on Germany to act as a mediator between China, Iran and the US. Security concerns surrounding Chinese production of Huawei 5G technology is a further point of tension about which, for now, Germany remains ambivalent.

‘Systemic rivals’

The visit would likely be billed as a success if Merkel manages to secure Chinese confirmation of participation in the planned trade agreement between the EU and China. To that end, Berlin wants to arrange an EU-China summit in Germany during its EU presidency in 2020.

While the EU Commission describes China as a “systemic rival,” Germany and China prefer to label each other as “global economic partners.” Alongside regular German-Sino consultations, the two sides held their first-ever joint military drill in Bavaria in July. Still, the ambivalent nature of their relationship remains a cause for concern both at home and abroad.

DW

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