The expansion of the dialogue between Germany and China to include foreign and security policy could have a huge, and potentially problematic, effect for the European Union.
Over the last few years, the increasingly close relationship between China and Germany has had an overwhelmingly economic focus. But it seems that China and Germany are now starting to talk not just about business but also about security.
While Chinese and German ministers will not formally discuss foreign and security policy at the third Chinese-German government-to-government consultation – in effect, a joint cabinet meeting – in Berlin this Friday, Xi Jinping and Angela Merkel agreed in March to expand their “bilateral strategic dialogue”. The following month in Beijing, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, discussed the Ukraine crisis, with Steinmeier thanking Wang for China’s participation in the E3+3 negotiations with Iran and expressing concern about territorial disputes in East Asia. In 2015, the strategic dialogue will be expanded even further to include representatives of the two countries’ defence ministries.
Although China and Germany have informally discussed security issues in the past, the expansion of their dialogue to include foreign and security policy could bean interesting and important development. The danger of the “special relationship” between China and Germany was that Germany could prioritise its own economic interests over Europe’s strategic interests. In a sense, therefore, it is a good thing that Germany seems to be broadening the focus of its relationship with China to also include security issues.
The danger of the “special relationship” between China and Germany was mainly that Germany would prioritise its own economic interests over Europe’s strategic interests.
The question, however, is what China and Germany will do in this strategic dialogue, and how Germany's approach will fit in with those of other member states and the European External Action Service (EEAS) to security issues in Asia. In particular, Germany will increasingly be put on the spot in disputes between China and its neighbours. However, it is not clear what Germany's response will be. In May, US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel criticised China’s “destabilizing, unilateral actions”; would Germany be prepared to take a similar stand as it becomes increasingly dependent on China for economic growth?
Until now, German officials have been somewhat dismissive of the attempts by France and the UK to play a role in regional security through defence co-operation with countries such as Japan, and have even remained sceptical of statements by the EU’s High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy that have emphasised that territorial disputes in East Asia should be resolved on the basis of the rule of law, in particular a joint statement with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2012. The instinct of many in Germany is that Europe should remain “neutral” in Asia rather than make an active contribution to regional security.
Thus, although the security dialogue could be an opportunity for Europe, there is also a danger that Germany may pursue its own national approach to security in Asia rather than using its relationship with China to support a coherent European approach that may lead to a confrontation with China. In the worst-case scenario, Germany’s bilateral security dialogue with China could undermine a European approach in much the same way that Germany’s economic relationship with its Asian ally undermined the European Commission on the issue of solar panels last year.
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.