Three days after Putin invaded Ukraine, Olaf Scholz, the Chancellor of Germany, made a speech to the Bundestag, the German Parliament, calling the circumstances zeitenwende, a watershed moment. He announced policies that amounted to a departure from the image of a pacifist Germany so assiduously cultivated by the nation since the West German constitution came into being in 1949 but more so by Angela Merkel who remained the Chancellor from 2005 till 2021. Merkel spent her childhood and youth in communist East Germany and was a member of the Free German Youth, the official youth movement of the communist state. She visited China a dozen times during her tenure and was instrumental in creating a strong bond between the two nations, one being the industrial powerhouse of Europe and the other of Asia. As she prepared to leave office in November, 2021, she said, “We can learn a lot from each other. Total decoupling wouldn’t be right in my view, it would be damaging for us.” A month before, she had held online “farewell talks” with Xi Jinping during which Xi described her as a “friend of the Chinese people.”
One year later, Merkel’s successor visited Beijing to “persuade” China not to support Putin in its war of aggression. One week before his departure, Scholz had approved the sale of 24.9% stake in a container terminal at Hamburg port, Germany’s largest, to the Chinese state-controlled Cosco Shipping Holdings Co. The move divided the government with the German jio Foreign Ministry rebuking that the sale would increase China’s control of Germany’s critical infrastructure. Germany’s Security and Intelligence Services chimed in by saying that Germany had become increasingly dependent on a hostile power. The issue reverberated in the EU too with one of the EU Commissioners, Thierry Breton warning, “When dealing with a systemic rival for the whole of the EU, it is no longer possible for individual Member States to play it solo… After our dependence on Russian gas, Europe needs to avoid repeating its mistakes from the past.”
China has consistently followed the policy of “divide and rule” in its trade and strategic relationships. Its efforts had distanced Europe from the US for a long time. It almost completely detached Pakistan from the US, though these two were at times the closest of allies and Pakistan was considered the strategic footprint of the US in South Asia. China is now Pakistan’s closest strategic partner. Chinese influence had distanced Germany from most of Europe during Merkel’s reign. Yet, an overambitious China had caused murmurs in these relations even during their heydays. Even while appearing to boost mutual trade, China consistently maintained a trade surplus with Germany. It acquired critical German technology by buying German companies that had developed or purchased cutting-edge technology. The sale of the German Robot maker Kuka to China and the serious though unsuccessful Chinese bid to buy the HighTech Aixtron raised heckles in Germany. As the EU distanced itself from China after Putin’s invasion and Chinese support for the war, China redoubled its efforts to get into closer partnership with Germany and drive a wedge between Berlin and Brussels.
The outcome of the huge propaganda machines of China and Russia to weaken US-EU relations, to weaken Nato and to increase the hold of China over German minds must be disappointing for Xi and Putin. Berlin Pulse is an annual survey, in coordination with the Pew Research Centre, about German policies and their perception at home and abroad. The latest survey reports that 90% of Germans do not want their country to acquire nuclear weapons indicating comfort with the nuclear umbrella of NATO. 82% rated the US-German relationship as good or very good. Clearly an outcome of Russia’s war on Ukraine, China’s support for it and Germany’s continued efforts to strengthen engagement with China, 39% felt that Germany’s reputation among partners has suffered due to its response to the war. It has not helped that Germany was the most dithering EU country when it came to transferring heavy weapons and tanks to Ukraine while the majority of Germans continue to support such help from Germany.
The survey results clearly showed that the Germans were demanding zeitenwende. Yet, Scholz seems to have failed to convince even his own ministers about perpetuating Merkel’s pro-China stance. His Minister of Education and Research, Bettina Stark-Watzinger went on record to say that Germany must not be naive and must increase its distance from China even in the field of scientific research. She expressed her opposition to all collaboration with China and in particular in all cases of dual-use technology and in artificial intelligence where strengthening the Chinese military is a natural outcome. She asserted that collaboration should be avoided “in general wherever we would help China gain an advantage in system competition.” To add further emphasis to her perception of the creeping Chinese influence on German education and research, she said, “If I were rector of a university, I would not have a Confucius Institute … co-financed by Beijing and exploited for political purposes by the Chinese Communist Party.” There are more than 500 such institutes in universities outside China with close to 150 in Europe itself.
The Chinese blade is attempting to slice apart not only the German public and the state policies, it is dividing the member states of the EU also. This was clearly visible during the recent visit to Beijing of the head of EU and France’s Macron. The BBC summed up the divergence in its headline story, “Macron and von der Leyen: Europe’s good cop and bad cop meet Xi Jinping”. Macron found “points of convergence with Chinese proposals” on ending the war. These proposals have the effect of allowing Russia to retain Ukrainian territories gained through aggressive war, thus normalising the idea of “spoils of war”. The EU head, on her part, said that any plan that legitimises annexation by Russia of conquered territories is “simply not viable”. Speaking before a joint conference of the Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS) and the European Policy Centre, she minced no words. “Xi ‘essentially wants China to become the world’s most powerful nation. … the power balance in that relationship (Russia and China) – which for most of the last century favoured Russia – has now reversed.” She outlined a strategy of “de-risiking” instead of “decoupling”. Of course, for China it is a zero-sum game; what puts the US and EU at risk, adds to the strength of China, whether it is China-controlled supply chains of strategic raw materials or the difference of opinion in the EU about the degree of engagement with China.
Whether EU repeats Nixon’s mistake or learns from it will determine the future of democracy. China had no wealth and full engagement with the West transferred a huge amount of wealth to it and that is enabling Chinese aggression today. Confucius had said, “Never give a sword to a man who cannot dance”. Instead of dancing to the music of democracy, the blade of the sword handed over to China by the West is now trying to split the West. Whether Germany’s declaration of zeitenwende reverses that trend for itself and for other democracies remains to be seen.