Friday is the first official visit by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz to China, which will be widely monitored for signs of how serious Germany is about cutting its reliance on Asia’s developing powerhouse and challenging its Communist rule.
Scholz will be the first G7 leader to visit China since the COVID-19 pandemic began on November 4 and the first to see Chinese President Xi Jinping after he solidified his hold on power at a Communist Party Congress during his one-day trip.
Deep trade ties bind Asia and Europe’s biggest economies, with rapid Chinese expansion and demand for Germany’s cars and machinery fueling its own growth over the past two decades. China became Germany’s single biggest trade partner in 2016.
A recent survey by the Ifo think-tank found that nearly half of German industrial firms now rely on significant inputs from China.
But Scholz’s trip comes at a time of growing concern in the West – particularly in Germany’s top security ally, the United States – about China’s trade practices, human rights record and territorial ambitions.
It also comes amid worry at home about Germany’s dependence on another increasingly assertive, authoritarian state given the ongoing fallout of its over-reliance on Russian energy.
“It is extremely important that we never again make ourselves so dependent on a country that does not share our values,” Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock told broadcaster ARD when asked about China.
Scholz, who will meet with both Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and Xi, will press China to open up its markets, raise human rights concerns and discuss “autocratic” tendencies, a German government spokesperson said last week.
Under former Chancellor Angela Merkel, Germany had already begun to adopt a little more aggressive approach toward China, as seen, for instance, by sending a warship to the contentious South China Sea for the first time in 20 years last year.
On the basis of a coalition agreement that took a stronger position against Beijing and mentioned sensitive subjects like Taiwan and Hong Kong as well as human rights breaches in Xianjiang, Scholz’s government is currently formulating its first ever China strategy.
Contrary to his predecessor, the chancellor made his first trip to Asia in Japan rather than China as a reflection of the times.