Canny China profits from UK-Germany rivalry

Tom Barfield
Tom Barfield - [email protected] • 30 Oct, 2015 Updated Fri 30 Oct 2015 17:28 CEST
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Chancellor Angela Merkel's visit to China just a week after Chinese President Xi Jinping's own trip to the UK has prompted a flurry of point-scoring comparisons. But experts tell The Local that Europe should be thinking harder about how to present a united front.

"We have very well-developed, broad relations with China in economic terms, in social terms," Merkel said at a joint press conference with premier Li Keqiang in response to questions about the UK and German charm offensives.

"I'm happy if President Xi can have a nice visit to the UK – competition brings life to business.

"But... we can also set up nice visits for Chinese guests. And now I'm having a nice visit to China.... Germany is well set-up as far as German-Chinese relations are concerned. We just don't have a Queen in Germany."

Chinese President Xi Jinping with Queen Elizabeth II at a state banquest in London. Photo: DPA

In fact, Merkel actually showed up in China this time around with a much smaller economic delegation than usual.

That's something the Germans might have done on purpose to show how confident they are in their business relations with China, Angela Stanzel, Asia Programme Policy Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations told The Local.

"The message seems to be that we don't need to bring 100 bosses any more, the economic links have their own momentum.

"And in China that's seen as an honour, that Germany trusts everything is going well."

Dividing the EU

But the fact that Merkel couldn't resist using the question on charm offensives to needle David Cameron or show off Germany's privileged position is just further proof that getting into China's good books is an issue that divides EU member states.

China may well have signed tens of billions of euros' worth of deals for Airbus aircraft and other goods during Merkel's time in Beijing this week.

But those deals shouldn't lead to complacency in Berlin, Sebastian Bersick, associate fellow at the DGAP foreign-policy think tank and a professor at Ruhr University in Bochum, told The Local.

"From Berlin's point of view... there's the impression that Germany is the first among equals in China relations, it's the pace-setter."

China signed a deal to buy 100 Airbus A320 passenger planes for €8.77 billion during Chancellor Merkel's visit. Photo: DPA

This national self-interest is one of the factors in play that mean "the EU too rarely has a united position towards China," Bersick explained.

"They (European countries) allow themselves to be played against one another again and again."

For instance, German-backed plans for EU sanctions on Chinese solar panels – intended to punish the country for unfairly subsidizing the industry – were dropped in 2013 after China threatened to slap import tariffs on European wine, a move that would have hit France hard.

"There is some coherence among EU members on the big questions, but when you get into economic affairs, the EU lets itself be split," Stanzel agreed.

UK going rogue

Cameron has been all too eager to break ranks with the UK's European partners on economic relations with China in recent years.

Last year, the UK prime minister was the first European leader to publicly back an EU–China free trade agreement (FTA) – something that Merkel grudgingly acknowledged could be on the cards during this week's visit.

Not only that, but Cameron jumped into the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank – a China-sponsored institution aimed at rivaling "Washington Consensus" institutions like the World Bank and IMF.

By joining it – and dragging other big European countries along with him, to the ire of the USA – "Cameron has given a very important signal from Beijing's point of view," making him a valuable wedge to open cracks in the EU's armour, Bersick said.

David Cameron and Xi Jinping at a meeting in London. Photo: DPA

That's why the UK was an obvious destination for Xi's latest visit abroad, Bersick added.

China was indicating its preference for pro-FTA voices within the EU while laying the groundwork for a potential China–UK FTA – on terms heavily favouring China – if the British do the unthinkable and vote to leave Europe, he said.

However, Stanzel cautioned that the UK should avoid getting too cocky about its place in the Chinese spotlight.

"I don't think it's the case that the UK is overtaking Germany as a preferred partner. Berlin is seen as the key to many European questions. If you want to get something from Europe, the road leads through Berlin," she said.

"The threat of Brexit gives the UK even less weight. The Chinese are signalling to the Brits now, we've invested this much with you – now what can the UK do for China?"

Human rights quietly sidelined

Much was made in the UK media of the fact that Cameron failed to bring up China's human rights record once during President Xi's visit.

The country continues to tightly control political expression and the media, executes hundreds of people each year and turns a blind eye to torture.

It also has a reputation for brutal dealings with ethnic minorities in provinces like Xinjiang, a region of western China inhabited by majority Muslim Uighur people, and Tibet.

But there was little public mention of the topic during Merkel's time in Beijing either.

"I know that human rights are always on the agenda [when German leaders meet Chinese leaders] – but the conversation may well have just been pro forma," Stanzel said.

Chinese artist and dissident Ai WeiWei accepting a guest professorship at the University of the Arts in Berlin. Photo: DPA

Germany has a near-schizophrenic relationship with China on the issue, and businesses are very satisfied with their end of the deal.

But "there's the other side of civil society and a very strong movement against China, for example the whole story with Ai Weiwei," Stanzel pointed out.

The dissident artist has a son in Germany and travelled here once released from years of house arrest by Chinese authorities.

Refugees: words but no action?

The experts who spoke to The Local differed on how seriously the West should take China's commitment to Merkel that it would intervene in the Middle East crisis that is driving refugees towards Europe.

"It's an important political signal that China is ready to play a bigger role and take on its responsibilities," Bersick said.

China has suffered a number of major terrorist attacks within its own borders in recent years which it has blamed on domestic terrorists' links with or inspiration from foreign movements.

But Stanzel said that China's talking up of the threat of international terrorism was much more self-serving and unlikely to herald its playing a larger role in the Middle East.

On a recent visit she made to China, she said, "most people aren't talking about the refugee crisis. Those that are see it as a problem of the West, and think that the West is to blame.

"China had security concerns a long time before Islamic State. The Uighur question has existed for much longer."

Chinese leaders have always adapted international security concerns to give credibility to their repressive moves against minorities within their country.

Isis makes for an ideal successor to Al-Qaeda as the supposed ideological inspiration for Uighur attacks.

An Uighur woman stands in front of two police armoured vans during protests in Xinjiang in 2009. Photo: DPA

"China's terrorism is an internal, national problem – there isn't the strong influence from the outside that the government would like others to believe," Stanzel said.

"In Chinese foreign policy, now as ever, the priority is for a stable environment, not just regionally but globally," Bersick said.

"Whatever guarantees their internal stability, political stability and economic development, that of course is the primary goal."

Leaders in the West would do well to remember that in the moments when they lift their eyes from games of one-upmanship.



Tom Barfield 2015/10/30 17:28

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