The fact that China's zero-Covid policy leaves very little room for adjustments was impressively demonstrated during the visit of German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on 4 November of this year: The German leader as well as all the representatives of his delegation were tested for Covid immediately after their arrival at Beijing airport, and the entire visit lasted only eleven hours in order to circumvent Chinese quarantine rules. An unusual procedure for a foreign state visit that already caused tremendous controversy before it even began.
As the first visit of a Western leader to China since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Olaf Scholz’s and Xi Jinping was awaited with great anticipation. While the Chinese president consolidated his position of power at home only a few weeks earlier at the 20th Party Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, his German counterpart was subjected to enormous criticism in the run-up to the trip. Having agreed to the sale of a quarter of a container terminal of the strategically important port of Hamburg to the Chinese shipping company COSCO against the explicit opposition of several federal ministries as well as the coalition parties in Scholz's left-liberal government, the chancellor was accused of being too benevolent, to the point of naivety, towards the People's Republic.
Moreover, the internationally uncoordinated China trip displeased a large part of Germany’s Western allies, above all France, whose President Macron had pushed for a joint trip of the two heads of state prior to Scholz’s visit. Instead, the German chancellor flew with a 12-member delegation of business representatives, including CEOs of the major German car companies Volkswagen and BMW, which earned the state visit the accusation of being driven purely by economic interests. The chancellor had to assure that he would also address sensitive issues such as China's compliance with international human rights standards during his visit.
However, as highly controversial as this first trip to China by the Chancellor was, the outcomes from Scholz’s China solo were rather unspectacular. In addition to vague declarations by both sides to expand joint cooperation, the German side emphasised the different approaches of both states towards Russia's war of aggression in Ukraine, which Germany, unlike the People's Republic, vehemently condemns. With regard to China’s human rights record, the German chancellor stated that for him these were "not internal affairs" of China and emphasised furthermore that any change in Taiwan's status quo should take place peacefully and by mutual agreement. The Chinese government accommodated Germany in opposing the use of nuclear weapons in Europe.
The main take-away from the controversial short trip for Germany's China policy is therefore one thing above all: continuity. Just as in the era of Angela Merkel, who travelled to China twelve times in her sixteen years as chancellor, the selection of delegation members shows Germany's focus on its foreign economic interests in East Asie. The German position is largely determined by the dependence of key German industries on China, most strikingly underlined by the fact that sales of the three largest German carmakers in the People's Republic, namely Volkswagen, BMW and Mercedes, account for almost 50 percent of their entire global turnover. In this regard, the German Association of the Automotive Industry, the largest interest group of German car manufacturers, as well as representatives from other highly China-dependent economic branches, published a number of statements in the run-up to Scholz’s China visit, vehemently warning of the dire consequences of a potential economic decoupling from the PRC for the prospects of prosperity in Germany.
At a time when Germany and Europe are abruptly and painfully attempting to decouple from Russia with regard to their energy supply, the German government does not seem to want to take on any other opponents. The fear loomed over Scholz’s visit that alienating China could further deteriorate the state of Germany’s highly export-oriented economy which at the same time heavily relies on raw materials and intermediary products from abroad. This geostrategic dilemma helps to understand Scholz’s willingness to push through the COSCO deal against almost universal opposition form all sides and to continue using the narrative of respectful partnership with the political leadership in Beijing despite diametrically opposing stances on the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
This development is seen as a disappointment for those within and outside Germany that expected that the entering of the Green and the Liberal Party into a government coalition formed in 2021 would shift Germany’s China approach to a more confrontational one. Both parties expected rather hawkish stances in their China approach in recent years with the Greens mainly focusing on China’s human rights record while the Liberals repeatedly underlines China’s role as a threatening technological competitor for German industry. The Scholz administration, however, so far appears significantly more moderate, expressing criticism about the state of human rights in China on the one hand, but rarely underpinning these statements with concrete measures. At the same time, while the most hawkish dreams of observers so far were not fulfilled, a gradual shift in the narrative of Germany’s China policy is visible. Due to the influence of the before-mentioned coalition parties, the German position has increasingly moved away from its "change through trade" approach in dealing with China, the notion that by integrating the People’s Republic into the global economic system, democratic opening and political liberalization would naturally follow. This doctrine, frequently expressed by the conservative Minister for Economy under the Merkel administration, has earned Germany a reputation for naivety before - a pattern that is now repeating itself.
Finally, the German China approach, be it more realist than idealist compared to the previous government, continues to lack a common European or Western approach. After the international diplomatic upheavals that Germany caused by its adherence to the Nordstream 2 pipeline with Russia, a strategically fatal decision as can be seen nowadays, the country’s foreign policy continues to seek its role as a solo actor when it comes to its foreign economic interests. This message was received with increasing hostility in Paris and could lead to a further deterioration of Franco-German relations. As a consequence, the formulation of a common approach of the European Union towards its biggest trading partner China seems as unlikely as in the past.
While the chancellor's first trip to China did not bring much reassurance about Germany’s approach towards the People’s Republic, Olaf Scholz described the trip as a success. For China's affirmation alone that it would never condone the use of nuclear weapons, the Chancellor said, the trip had been worthwhile.