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First Russia, now China? Europe doesn’t appear ready to ‘decouple’ from Beijing just yet

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz was the first leader of a Group of 7 nations to visit China since the start of the pandemic.
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HONG KONG — China and Germany should work together more in these “times of change and instability,” Chinese President Xi Jinping told German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on Friday, as the German leader made a visit to Beijing that has drawn criticism in European countries wary of China’s growing power.

Scholz was the first leader of a Group of 7 nations to visit China since the start of the pandemic, which was first detected there in 2019. He is also the first Western leader to visit since Xi, who has tightened control at home and been more confrontational with the West, secured an unprecedented third term in power.

China’s relations with Europe have deteriorated amid tensions over Taiwan, human rights issues and Beijing’s tacit support for Russia in its war on Ukraine.

Meeting with Scholz on Friday in the Great Hall of the People, Xi reaffirmed China’s support for a “peaceful settlement of the Ukraine crisis” and called “on relevant parties to remain rational and exercise restraint,” according to a statement from China’s foreign ministry. 

European countries are scrambling to replace their natural gas supply after cutting off ties with Russia, leading some to ask whether they should reduce their dependence on China, the world’s second-largest economy.

Scholz has rejected the idea, often referred to as “decoupling,” calling instead for the E.U. to “diversify and minimize” its economic reliance on China, Germany’s largest trading partner. He arrived in Beijing with 12 leaders of German blue-chip companies, including the chief executive of Deutsche Bank and the founder of BioNTech, which developed a Covid vaccine with Pfizer.

China has welcomed Scholz’s visit, saying it would “contribute to world peace, stability and growth.” But it received considerable pushback in Europe.

“It is the wrong trip at the wrong time in the wrong format and without strategic sense,” said Reinhard Bütikofer, chair of the European Parliament’s delegation for relations with China. “The trip is a signal that Scholz considers the business of a few CEOs more important than Germany’s strategic interests and the necessary common ground with our partners.”

Bütikofer, who is the subject of Chinese sanctions, and seven other European lawmakers traveled this week to Taiwan, a self-ruling island that Beijing claims as its territory and has not ruled out taking by force. China views such trips, including one in August by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, as encouraging Taiwanese independence.

Other European officials have been more measured. While E.U. member states should reduce their dependence on an increasingly assertive China, many of them still have strong economic relationships with the country, said Josep Borrell, the E.U.’s foreign policy chief.

“I don’t think we can put China and Russia on the same level,” he told reporters in Münster, Germany, on Friday.

Fears over Chinese interference

Scholz’s one-day visit to Beijing comes amid heightened fears in Europe over Chinese interference abroad.

“China is portrayed in the German media as the evil other, the country of origin of the coronavirus and the home of spies,” said Sabrina Habich-Sobiegalla, a professor of Chinese studies at the Free University of Berlin. “That is why I suspect that the Germans are very critical of Chancellor Scholz’s trip to China.” 

Police in Britain are investigating a scuffle last month outside the Chinese Consulate in Manchester in which a protester was dragged inside the consulate grounds and beaten by staff. Investigations are also underway in Britain, Ireland, the Netherlands and elsewhere after reports that China had established at least 54 “overseas police service centers,” some of which may have assisted Chinese police in carrying out operations on foreign soil.

The Chinese government has denied any wrongdoing. Asked about the police service centers last month, Mao Ning, a spokesperson from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said “that Chinese public security authorities strictly observe international law and fully respect the judicial sovereignty of other countries.” 

China has long waged a campaign of transnational repression in which it tracks down dissidents overseas and forcibly repatriates them, and the service centers appear to be part of that, said Laura Harth, campaign director at Safeguard Defenders, a rights group in Madrid that published a report on the Chinese facilities in September.

Harth said European governments were not sufficiently alert to the threat, with the European Commission saying it was up to individual countries to handle the overseas policing allegations.

“It’s such a horrible, blatant attack on fundamental freedoms and basic rights in the European Union” and elsewhere, Harth said. “But somehow when it comes to Chinese overseas communities it just seems they care a bit less maybe, and that’s very concerning.”

Ahead of his trip, Scholz said in a statement Thursday that “the tense situation around Taiwan is worrying” and the status quo “can only be changed peacefully and by mutual agreement.”

He added that Germany’s policy “is aimed at maintaining the rule-based order, the peaceful resolution of conflicts, the protection of human and minority rights and free, fair world trade.”

Attacks at home and abroad

In recent weeks, Scholz has come under attack from his own government over Chinese business interests in Germany’s critical infrastructure. Last week his Cabinet allowed the Chinese shipping giant Cosco to acquire a 25% stake in the port in Hamburg, the country’s largest, although the stake was smaller than originally planned.

Scholz publicly supported the deal despite warnings by six ministries and the country’s intelligence services. In an open letter to Scholz, 55 Germany-based China experts cautioned that the “political risk for Hamburg and Germany far outweighs the hoped-for economic benefit.” 

The United States also warned Germany against allowing China to obtain a controlling stake in the Hamburg port, the State Department said this week, leading Beijing to accuse Washington of interference.

In a similar case, the German government is reviewing the acquisition of Elmos Semiconductor’s chip factory in Dortmund by Silex, a wholly-owned Swedish subsidiary of the Chinese company Sai MicroElectronics. The Biden administration is pushing for rules curbing China’s access to the strategically important technology among its allies.

“The U.S. wants to hijack European countries in its confrontation with China,” said Fan Jishe, deputy director of the Institute for International Strategy at the Party School of the Central Committee of China’s ruling Communist Party.

While the U.S. may be pursuing decoupling, “European companies are different. They want to benefit from China’s development,” Fan said at an event in Beijing this week.

Pulling away from China is unrealistic as Europe faces high inflation and a winter without Russian gas, said Wang Huiyao, president of the Center for China and Globalization, a think tank in Beijing.

“The European public think that they rely on China too much, but in fact it’s really a mutually beneficial relationship,” he said, pointing to China as an important source of export revenue, students and — once it lifts its zero-Covid controls — tourists.  

Wang suggested Europe could have the “best of both worlds” by playing a mediating role between Beijing and Washington.

Habich-Sobiegalla agreed.

“Germany is showing that it is making its own decisions in its relations with China and not relying solely on U.S. policy,” she said. “In principle, that is a good thing.”