Europe’s relationship with Beijing will largely be determined by the emerging “special relationship” between China and Germany. However, the rest of Europe must find ways to help Germany be a good European in its relationship with China – or risk being cut out of the loop.
“If you want something done in Brussels,” a Chinese official told us on a recent visit to Beijing, “you go to Berlin”.
The basis for this political relationship is the explosion in trade between China and Germany over the past decade and in particular German exports to China. Nearly half of all EU exports to China come from Germany, while nearly a quarter of all EU imports from China are destined for Germany. Demand from China for automobiles and machinery played a big part in Germany bouncing back from the economic crisis so quickly.
At the moment there is a type of symbiosis between the Chinese and German economies: China needs technology and Germany needs a market. The Chinese think Germany can help them move to the next stage of their economic development and talk about a “mutually beneficial” relationship (though there is also potential for conflict as China moves up the value chain and provides not just a market but also competition for Germany).
Since 2008, China and Germany, both exporters with high levels of savings and surpluses, have often been on the same side in debates about the global economy and have been criticised by the US. Some Chinese analysts see parallels between emerging German leadership at a regional level and emerging Chinese leadership at a global level. The economic crisis has raised the world’s expectations of both countries.
This emerging “special relationship” is both an opportunity and a danger for Europe. On the one hand, the scale of German investment could give Europe greater leverage over China. On the other hand there is a risk that Germany will use its close relationship with China to pursue its own economic interests rather than Europe’s strategic interests.
For China, the upgrading of the relationship with Germany takes place in the larger strategic context of the US pivot towards Asia. The Chinese welcomed Germany’s abstention in the UN Security Council on the use of military force in Libya last March – which they see as indicative of an overlap between Germany’s reluctance to use military force and their own principle of non-interference. China wants a Europe that is prepared to stand up to the US and may see Germany as a way of achieving that goal – in other words as a way of splitting the west.
At the moment, China’s need for technology means that Germany still has some limited leverage. But German officials are aware that, in the long term, they do not have sufficient weight on their own to influence an emerging superpower with a population of 1.35bn. “In the end we’re 80m and shrinking,” says one German official.
Not least because of its economic interests, Germany has tried hard to develop a comprehensive European approach to China, but this came to nothing. Some German officials are now understandably frustrated and sceptical about the possibility of a common EU approach to China.
This is a dangerous situation for both Germany and Europe. When Chancellor Angela Merkel visited China in February – after the European summit and right before the EU-China summit – she appeared to speak for Europe, which reinforced the impression that Berlin had replaced Brussels in Beijing.
Germany must not give up on a European approach to China. But the rest of Europe must also urgently find ways to help Germany be a good European in its relationship with China – or risk being cut out of the loop as Germany’s bilateral relationship with China replaces Europe’s embryonic “strategic partnership” with China.
The article first appeared in the Financial Times.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.