Merkel’s conservatives with their candidate Armin Laschet, 60, and the Greens’ challenger, Annalena Baerbock, 40, are neck-and-neck in the polls four months before a general election that will mark the end of the veteran chancellor’s era.
Both have limited experience in global politics.
Laschet, who will present his diplomatic strategy on Wednesday, was a member of the European Parliament in the early 2000s and now leads Germany’s most populous state.
Baerbock meanwhile served as the assistant to a Green MEP from 2005 to 2008 and holds a degree in international law from the London School of Economics.
Both have voiced their alignment with the United States and their commitment to Europe and NATO.
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But when it comes to issues concerning major powers China and Russia, the two sharply differ.
Analysts note that while Laschet is largely seen as the continuity candidate likely to keep to Merkel’s diplomatic line, Baerbock may well bring a change in tone when it comes to issues surrounding Beijing and Moscow.
Merkel has always adopted a pragmatic stance with Russia and China, arguing that it was possible to find common interests and keep doing business with them while also voicing differences on issues like human rights.
But critics have accused her of lacking bite when standing up to Vladimir Putin or Xi Jinping as she tries to shield German business interests.
Her stubborn defence of the controversial Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline between Russia and Germany has irked even allies.
Despite escalating rows with Moscow over issues including its annexation of Crimea or the poisoning of opposition figure Alexei Navalny, Merkel has stuck by the 10-billion-euro ($11-billion) pipeline.
Baerbock wants the pipeline scrapped, saying it undermines sanctions against Russia and poses an environmental threat.
More generally, in an interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung daily in April, Baerbock said she was in favour of a “different approach to authoritarian regimes”.
“Baerbock takes a clearly critical stance towards autocrats, whether in the Kremlin or in Beijing,” Thorsten Benner, director of the Global Public Policy Institute think tank, told AFP.
Laschet, who has been branded by some as a Moscow sympathiser, has said the government “is following the right course” on the Nord Stream pipeline.
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In 2018, he was criticised for questioning whether Britain had proof that Russia was involved with the poisoning of Sergei Skripal, though he later changed his stance.
Like Merkel, Laschet has not been afraid to criticise Russia and has called for the immediate release of Navalny from prison, but he has also said he believes the Nord Stream 2 project to be “independent of this”.
Likewise on China, Laschet would be broadly expected to keep to the course of Merkel, who was at the forefront of negotiating an investment deal between Beijing and the EU at the end of 2020 and has been ramping up business ties with China for some years.
In an interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Laschet said it was “not acceptable what is happening with Uyghurs in China”.
“Nevertheless, we have business relationships, scientific relationships, technological relationships,” he added.
Baerbock has come out more strongly over China’s treatment of the Uyghur minority.
While she acknowledged that “it’s not human rights on one side and economic interests on this side,” she said Europe can decline to purchase any goods made in regions where violations are being committed, for instance in Xinjiang.
She charged in April that the EU had “not sufficiently addressed the issue of forced labour in relation to the oppressed Uyghur minority” in relation to the EU-China investment deal, which was suspended at the beginning of May.
Rights groups say up to one million Uyghus and people from other mostly Muslim groups are detained in internment camps in the northwest Xinjiang region of China.
Baerbock has also warned against Chinese companies such as Huawei harvesting data in Europe.
Giving a hint of how she planned to push through her stance against international players, Baerbock said in an interview with media group RND: “It’s not enough to bang on the table.
“One needs a clear position, and one’s own compass, in order to fully exploit the entire spectrum of diplomacy — dialogue, incentives and toughness.”
By Mathieu FOULKES