On July 15, German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited the White House for bilateral talks with U.S. President Joe Biden. Foreigners see Merkel’s visit as her farewell tour before she leaves office in September, and are concerned about whether the U.S. and Germany can agree on the issue of confronting China. In recent years, Merkel’s moderate stance on China policy and human rights issues has sparked much criticism, with some scholars saying that when assessing Merkel’s diplomatic legacy, “China is her biggest blind spot.”
Merkel’s “farewell visit”
On the afternoon of July 15 local time, U.S. President Joe Biden and German Chancellor Angela Merkel held bilateral talks in the Oval Office of the White House.
In a press conference after the meeting, Biden said he and Merkel agreed on a new Washington declaration to ensure that democratic principles “meet the greatest challenges of the future.
“When we see China undermining free societies …… The two countries will stand up for democracy and universal rights,” Biden said. “Biden also mentioned that the situation in Hong Kong is deteriorating and that the Chinese government is not fulfilling its commitments.
Merkel said through an interpreter that she and Biden discussed foreign policy priorities, including China. “We are a country that supports free, democratic societies …… , and for those places where human rights are not guaranteed, we will raise our voice and make our disapproval clear. We also want to ensure the territorial integrity of all countries in the world. “
Merkel also said that trade with China must be based on a level playing field, as well as compliance with common rules and standards.
Merkel is the first European leader to visit the White House since Biden took office, and the fifth foreign head of state to do so, following the leaders of Japan, South Korea, Israel and Afghanistan. The White House framed Merkel’s working visit as “an affirmation of the deep and longstanding U.S.-German bilateral relationship.”
The Associated Press reported that Merkel, who will step down from her 16-year chancellorship in September, is making the trip mainly to reassure the United States that the transition of power in Germany will not lead to a significant change in policy toward the United States.
Can the U.S. and Germany agree on the issue of “resistance to China”?
A senior White House NSC official said in a 14-day phone briefing that Biden and Merkel will talk extensively about the new crown epidemic, climate change, the situation in Ukraine, Afghanistan and Libya, as well as Russia’s cyber attacks and territorial expansion. In addition, the U.S. and German heads of state will talk about how to “confront China’s rising influence, non-market economic practices, and human rights abuses, including forced labor.”
“China (issues) will be part of the agenda between the two leaders …… signs of a growing convergence (on strategy toward China) with our allies and partners.” The senior White House official said Biden’s European visit last month yielded a series of results, including an explicit reference in the G7 communiqué to action against China’s forced labor practices, the first time the NATO summit communiqué identified China as a security challenge and included China in a new strategic concept to be developed next year; in addition, the U.S.-EU summit established a “U.S.-European Union Trade and Technology In addition, the U.S.-EU summit established the “U.S.-EU Trade and Technology Council” (US EU Trade and Technology Council) to jointly address emerging technology and competition-related policies, as well as China’s non-market economic behavior.
White House officials have conservatively used the term “growing convergence” to describe the latest developments in “Europe against China,” but the fact remains that China policy remains one of the key points of disagreement between the United States and Germany.
As the Biden administration defines China as the “greatest geopolitical challenge” facing the United States and calls on allies to form a “democratic alliance” against China, Merkel’s German government has been reluctant to take a tough stance against Beijing.
In the weeks before Biden took office, Merkel cooperated with Beijing to broker the Europe-China Investment Agreement. Merkel has also been criticized for not being tough on Beijing on the Hong Kong and Xinjiang issues. Before the G7 summit this June, Merkel also made it clear that China is an adversary in many ways, “but on many issues China is also a partner at the same time.”
Merkel’s diplomatic legacy Academics: “China is her biggest blind spot”
Over the past five years, China has surpassed the United States as Germany’s largest trading partner. Many analyses suggest that Merkel values the huge commercial benefits with China, but Thorsten Benner, director of the German think tank Global Public Policy Institute (GPPI), offered a new interpretation in Foreign Policy magazine on 14 June.
Benner writes to review the shift in Merkel’s attitude toward China over her sixteen years in power, from once meeting the Dalai Lama over Beijing’s objections and advocating loudly on human rights issues to now seemingly engaging with China at all costs, which he argues is not just mercantilism but also comes from Merkel’s pessimism about Europe’s future.
“Given her pessimistic outlook on Europe’s future …… she wants to maximize her breathing space by taking a middle path between the United States and China and avoiding conflict with Beijing.” He cited the example of Merkel, when she thinks Germany is not a competitive enough player, the remaining option is to take a Swiss-like “neutral” route among the major powers.
Merkel’s choice of approach to China has been questioned in recent years by many in the academic, political and even business world.
Noah Barkin, a visiting scholar and senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund, said bluntly that “China is her biggest blind spot” when it comes to assessing Merkel’s diplomatic legacy.
“She saw a shift in China’s trajectory under Xi Jinping, but she was slow to acknowledge the risks this shift posed for Germany and to adjust her policies accordingly.” Noah Barkin wrote an article commenting on the two major failures of Merkel’s final year in office, which were the collapse of the Europe-China Investment Agreement and allowing Huawei to enter the German 5G market. “Both events show that Merkel is out of step with the domestic and European political mood in Germany when it comes to China.”
Will China policy turn around in the post-Merkel era?
“(The shift in attitudes toward China) started about five years ago, …… and is seen not only in human rights groups but also in the business community in general.” Reinhard Bütikofer, a German Green member of the European Parliament and head of the China Relations Group, gave a talk at the Progressive Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C., think tank, on the 15th, entitled “The Transatlantic Response to the China Challenge. Transatlantic Response to the China Challenge”, said at a seminar organized by the Progressive Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. “Germany and China used to have a win-win relationship, with us providing the high-tech products and luxury cars that China craves, and China providing the cheap goods. But in a new twist, China has moved up the supply chain in a way that doesn’t follow the rules, developing a questionable nationalist economic strategy.”
In March, the United States joined the European Union, the United Kingdom, Canada and other countries in imposing sanctions on Chinese officials and entities for human rights abuses in Xinjiang.
China, in turn, imposed counter-sanctions on 10 Europeans, including members of the European Parliament, and the list included Bao Ruihan. Subsequently, the European Parliament called a halt to the deliberations on the Europe-China Investment Agreement.
“If you look at the election platforms and the parties’ statements on China policy in the September elections in Germany, you will see that there is a transformative process (of attitudes toward China) taking place.” Boreham observed that the change in attitude toward China in Germany and most European countries has been a gradual process, citing the success of Biden’s visit to Europe last month as an example, “Biden was welcomed (in Europe) not only because he represents a message of renewed cooperation between the United States and its allies; but also because he sees China as a systemic competitor and sees competition with China as ‘democracy versus authoritarianism’ which overlaps with our values.”