FRANKFURT – German Chancellor Olaf Scholz makes a high-stakes trip to China this week, walking a tightrope between shoring up a key economic relationship and facing heightened concerns about over-reliance on authoritarian Beijing.
Mr Scholz, accompanied by a delegation of business executives, will be the first European Union leader to visit the world’s second-biggest economy since 2019.
During the one-day trip on Friday, he will hold talks with President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang.
But the visit has sparked controversy, coming as Berlin reels from an over-dependence on Russian energy imports and amid surging tensions with China over issues ranging from Taiwan to alleged human rights abuses against the Uighurs in Xinjiang.
Mr Dolkun Isa, an Uighur activist based in Germany and president of the World Uighur Congress, on Tuesday slammed the planned visit and accused Mr Scholz of deciding to “pay homage to Xi Jinping in complete disregard of human suffering”.
The decision to bring a business delegation “shows that for Germany, profit continues to trump human rights”, Mr Isa told a press briefing in Berlin.
Even senior figures within Mr Scholz’s coalition are raising concerns.
Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said she feared mistakes made in the relationship with Russia could be repeated with China.
“We must prevent that,” Ms Baerbock – from the Greens, a member of Mr Scholz’s uneasy three-party ruling coalition – told broadcaster ARD at the weekend.
“I think it is extremely important that we never again make ourselves so dependent on a country that does not share our values.”
The sensitivity was highlighted when a row erupted last month about whether to allow Chinese shipping giant Cosco to buy a stake in a Hamburg port terminal.
Ultimately, Mr Scholz defied calls from six ministries to veto the sale over security concerns, instead permitting the company to acquire a reduced stake.
Ahead of the trip, Mr Scholz’s spokesman Steffen Hebestreit stressed the Chancellor was not in favour of “decoupling” from China, but also wanted to “diversify, and minimise risks”.
For now, the German and Chinese economies remain deeply intertwined.
China is a major market for German goods, particularly for auto giants Volkswagen, BMW and Mercedes-Benz, and many jobs in Europe’s top economy depend directly on the relationship.
The worsening climate has rattled the nerves of German firms with investments in China.
BASF chemicals giant boss Martin Brudermueller, who will accompany Mr Scholz, last week urged an end to “China bashing”.
Still, the timing of the trip has raised eyebrows, coming so soon after Mr Xi secured a historic third term as China’s leader.
“The timing is extremely unfortunate,” Dr Heribert Dieter, from the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, told AFP.
Mr Xi “has just been confirmed for another five years in office, and of course Chinese politicians see the German Chancellor’s visit as confirmation of their policies”, he added.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian on Tuesday said the aim of Mr Scholz’s visit was to “inject new impetus into the in-depth development of the full-scale strategic partnership between China and Germany… and contribute to world peace, stability and growth”.
Mr Scholz’s spokesman Hebestreit has insisted the trip will “cover the entire spectrum of our relations with China”, including tensions in East Asia, human rights and the war in Ukraine.
He also said that Mr Scholz was in close contact with international partners in Europe, as well as the United States, about the visit.
But some may see it as further evidence of Germany going it alone to look after its own interests.
Berlin has already raised hackles among fellow EU members by unveiling a 200 billion-euro (S$280.32 billion) fund to shield consumers and businesses from surging energy prices, rather than acting together with the rest of the bloc.
“Western allies – of course in Paris but above all in Washington – see this trip very critically,” said Dr Dieter.
“Germany is following its own path.” AFP