Europe’s power players should tread carefully with Beijing visits – POLITICO


Fergus Hunter is an analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

Among the recurring phrases peppered throughout the tirades by Beijing’s wolf warrior diplomats is that countries are “playing with fire” when they don’t align with the interests of the Chinese government.

To reuse this cliché, Europe’s two most powerful leaders, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron, are no doubt playing with fire with their planned trips to Beijing to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping next month.

Of course, some level of diplomatic outreach is worthwhile, as there are important areas where China and Western powers need to cooperate, as the world lurches into an increasingly dangerous and complex era. “Fighting face to face is better than war”, as Winston Churchill said. Not to mention the escalation of the climate crisis, which calls for stronger Chinese action and international collaboration.

However, these visits must be handled skillfully, or they could do more harm than good.

To begin with, the timing of these upcoming trips is very poor. If the German chancellor and the French president are not clear and forceful, their visits may do little more than embolden the Chinese leader, alienating democratic partners, undermining strategies to build resilience against China-related economic threats. , weakening European solidarity and relegating the power of Beijing. industrial-scale human rights abuses to second-tier status in the process.

Scholz and Macron, who have yet to publicly announce the details of their plans, must effectively get their messages across on key political and security issues to make their outings worthwhile. If they are going to continue their travels, they should go together and they should delay the visit, so that they do not arrive immediately after the National Conference of the Chinese Communist Party this month.

If they still go to Beijing in November, Scholz and Macron must understand that by visiting so soon after the 20th party conference, where Xi will have secured a norm-breaking third term as general secretary and further cement his autocratic rule, it seems that they will kiss the ring. The coverage of Xi receiving his guests, the de facto leaders of Europe, will be on all the front pages of the Communist Party’s propaganda media, thus informing the Chinese population about how the party is “rejuvenating socialism”. in the world” and how his country’s global pre-eminence is being established.

In reality, however, these handshake and smile photo opportunities will occur just as China’s position is in free fall in the democratic world. With the continuing human rights abuses in Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Tibet; military aggression in your neighborhood; a “limitless” association with Russia, Europe’s violent antagonist; and the rise of coercive behavior against democratic countries, the Beijing government’s list of misconduct continues to expand.

Amid all this, Scholz’s welcome signal about economic ties, as he plans to bring a trade delegation with him on his trip, is particularly confusing for both the industry and Germany’s international partners.

Last month, German economic affairs minister Robert Habeck announced that the government was seeking to reduce reliance on Chinese trade and strengthen investment screening. “And from this you will see that there is no more naivete,” he said. Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock declared that Germany must confront the risks of economic interdependence and abandon her belief in Wandel Durch Handel — change through trade — when it comes to Russia and China.

In this regard, many German companies, especially those Mittelstand small and medium-sized companies, in fact, are currently reducing their exposure to China and, according to a local industry survey, a quarter of Germany’s manufacturing companies are now seeking to reduce imports from the country. Automaker Stellantis NV, for example, has closed its only Jeep factory in China due to growing market interference. And as part of China’s extreme economic coercion against Lithuania, German manufacturing companies like Continental have seen their market access threatened due to their Lithuanian supply chains.

Xi himself is also promoting a decoupling or “dual circulation” agenda, which seeks to reduce dependence on foreign countries. Growing rules and restrictions favoring Chinese companies are hurting foreign companies’ market share and discouraging new investment, according to German companies. Beijing’s “COVID-zero” addiction is also wreaking havoc.

It is deeply questionable that Scholz is choosing this exact moment to lead a team of executives swimming in the opposite direction.

One feels here the influence of a handful of powerful German CEOs, who remain dogmatically committed to the Chinese market and wield enormous political influence; just look for the heads of Volkswagen, Siemens or some of the other usual suspects in the chancellor’s entourage. Scholz would be much better off if he took these highflyers to some emerging markets in Asia.

This pressure from powerful corporate middlemen, coupled with the widening divide between Scholz and his Green coalition partners Habeck and Baerbock, also does not bode well for the strength of Germany’s long-awaited strategy with China, which will ultimately It will come out next year.

In general, it would be a serious mistake for Scholz or Macron to use their travels to pursue narrowly conceived national interests rather than convey a clear and united European position on a range of era-defining issues. The visits must demonstrate European unity and determination, not exacerbate division. And if these two leaders are to go to China, they should at least go together, go later, and leave without any commercial players in tow.


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