A Misguided European Union Must Not Taint Germany-China Relations
In times of a global calamity of such proportions, an escalation of the blame game will not yield favourable outcomes.
Human civilization is experiencing a severe and unprecedented crisis involving the growing spread of the Covid-19 pandemic, a deep economic depression, and the associated threat that a great number of people could lose their means of survival. It should be obvious that a calamity of such proportions can only be solved by joint mobilization of the necessary resources among all economic powers. To prevent a further spread of the Coronavirus and an even steeper decline of economic activities, governments and multilateral institutions would have to focus primarily on generating all necessary means in terms of guaranteeing the health and wellbeing of all individuals worldwide.
While brushing differences aside, finding common ground and upholding stability in international relations should unquestionably be the norm, the crisis has been used to put confrontation over cooperation. It is not only the US, but, as I shall point out, increasingly the European Union, which is engaged in a pressure campaign to intimidate China. Germany, as the largest industrial economy on the European continent, is advised to withstand these tendencies, for the sake of humanity surely, but also for its own sake, because it needs stable partners such as China to regain control over its struggling economy.
Speaking for my own country, Germany, there has to be a clear commitment by German leaders to continue the path of enhancing cooperation with China, with its growing economic strength, but also with the Chinese leadership and academic institutions. China has become Germany’s largest trading partner since 2016, overtaking the United States of America; a singular event in modern global history. Germany and China have developed a comprehensive strategic partnership and have experienced multiple successes in their decade-long relations after diplomatic ties began in 1972. The current shockwave of the coronavirus pandemic has indicated that Sino-German economic ties are exceptionally resilient. According to figures released by the Federal Bureau of Statistics, Germany’s exports to China have only receded by 12.6 percent in April of this year, while exports to the US have slumped by 35.8 percent, and to neighbouring France even by a staggering 48.3 percent year on year.
Naturally, German companies operating in China were not exempt from the impact of the various necessary measures that had to be taken to contain and crush the Coronavirus. It will take time to resume full business activities and make up for the drop of revenues in the first half of 2020. The strict measures applied by the Chinese authorities guarantee the safest way for all companies, including the more than 5,000 German ones, to return to profitable levels of activities while staying committed to the safety of workers and the population generally. A recently issued forecast by the International Monetary Fund even predicts that China will be the only country to register one percent growth rate by the end of this year, in contrast to the many western economies which are experiencing the worst collapse since the Second World War. According to these figures Germany will see a seven percent decline.
Germany is struggling
This development is partly the outcome of a lack of an adequate response of the German governmental bodies. Chinese commentators have rightly criticized Western countries for reacting too late and with too little rigor against the Coronavirus outbreak. German authorities have initially declared that the virus was not a threat to the Germany population. Consequently, measures have lagged behind and the lockdown came rather late.
For a long time, face masks and tracing software has not been available. Then, after much pressure by representatives of German companies, local German authorities have in many instances rolled back strict lockdown measured too early. Hundreds of new infections are still being registered daily in German health centres, new infection hotspots have popped up, threatening a local or even broader return of restrictions. Almost entire industrial branches such as meat processing and packaging had to be closed, due to untenable conditions of low-wage workers, which resulted in thousands of them getting infected with the virus.
Additionally, 7,3 million German factory workers have been put on short work hours, facing potential unemployment. The entire service sector and small businesses have sought government subsidies to keep from going under. Although these conditions are not unique to Germany, they are an expression of the volatility of the situation. When the recent warnings of the World Health Organisation and the dramatically rising numbers of infections in Brazil, the US, India, Chile and elsewhere are taken into consideration, it becomes clear that this challenge is affecting mankind as a whole and can only be addressed globally. Germany would be well advised to expand their cooperation with China in this regard, for example by referring to the Health Silk Road proposal made by Chinese President Xi Jinping, as a truly global perspective in diagnosing and remedying the pandemic and related issues.
There are some obvious complications and threats to the needed stability of international relations. The “trade war” and the “technology war” pushed by the United States Congress and various members of the foreign policy establishment is an issue of daily newspaper headlines. What is lesser known is the fact that even the European Union leadership and key members of the German parliament have also resorted to gross distortions, vilifications and outright threats towards China and its political leadership. Similar to the US tactics, they have also abused issues such as human rights and civil liberties to stir up animosities within the German population. There is not a single day or week when the German mass media has not published often grotesque misrepresentations of President Xi personally, the Communist Party of China leadership, the National People’s Congress and its policies, such as the recent National Security Law in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. Although the European Union has been so far largely portrayed as a benign actor from the Chinese viewpoint, the EU, too, has been clearly moving into a more confrontational posture towards China.
The EU plays with fire
On May 29, Josep Borrell, who is heading the European External Action Service (EEAS), the EU’s main foreign policy department, has held a discussion with all European foreign affairs ministers.
According to Borrell, the “main issue” had been the European countries’ “relationship with China”. He emphasized that it was clear that China “is a systemic rival and this dimension of our relationship is there, it is even increasing”, adding in a rather contradictory fashion that “[i]t is a competitor, a partner, an ally, a rival.”
Borrell’s remarks came on the heels of a released statement condemning China for allegedly “seriously undermining” the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ principle with the then announced national security law in Hong Kong. He said that mutual trust between Europe and China had been called into question.
Based on this changed view, the EU would issue a “new outlook on China taking into account all the recent developments: the pandemic; Hong Kong, [China’s] more assertive diplomacy.”
This has revealed that the EU’s leadership is regrettably accelerating their efforts of making uncorroborated accusations and using similar pressure campaign methods as some US State Department officials have been doing with increasing fervour. Despite the fact that the recent EU-China Summit videoconference has been widely regarded as a constructive event, EU-Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen has used some rather harsh formulations in her joint press statement. She not only put the Hong Kong issue high on the summit agenda, thereby interfering in the internal affairs of China and wrongfully mixing issues of market access and investment regulations with so called human rights concerns; she even dared to admonish China by saying that “human rights and fundamental freedoms are non-negotiable”, not mentioning that the EU had to bear a lot of international criticism itself over how it handled the refugee crisis by allowing displaced persons to be held in camps outside of the European Union under appalling conditions.
So apparently human rights and freedoms are negotiable to the EU when its own interests are affected. Such double-standard has unfortunately become part of the EU’s fabric in international negotiations.
Accusations of disinformation Serves as a Wake-up Call
Von der Leyen said many other things which should raise the alarm of Chinese lawmakers, such as her suggestion to take up “decarbonization” in the next five-year-plan. If she has set the path of Europe to exiting from all existing fossil fuels, oil, gas and coal, and from all nuclear power generation within 30 years, then the end of the industrial era of Europa is sealed, because no modern industrialized region and its infrastructure can survive merely on wind and solar energy. To urge China to follow the same path of self-destruction is, frankly speaking, an attempt of offering a suicide pact.
The other major confrontation Mrs. Von der Leyen was embarking on is the allegation that China had engaged in disinformation about the Covid-19 outbreak, adding that “clearly this cannot be tolerated.” Such false narratives and unproven accusations have unfortunately taken a firm hold in the EU’s negotiation style. A flagship project of the European External Action Service is the so called East StratCom Task Force, which has blamed China of deflecting blame for the Coronavirus pandemic, and using “the pandemic to promote their own governmental system and enhance their image abroad”.
A joint communication by the EU-Commission dating from June 10 called “Tackling COVID-19 disinformation – Getting the facts right“ states: “Foreign actors and certain third countries, in particular Russia and China, have engaged in targeted influence operations and disinformation campaigns around COVID-19 in the EU, its neighbourhood and globally, seeking to undermine democratic debate and exacerbate social polarisation, and improve their own image in the COVID-19 context.” A specially set-up website is supposed to uncover such alleged disinformation campaigns.
These examples should serve as a wake-up call that German-Chinese relations which have been following a positive course for decades, might be in danger of being tainted now and in future, as a result of the EU ramping up its Anti-China rhetoric. Germany’s government under Angela Merkel, except for foreign minister Maas and his infamous endorsement of Hong Kong’s Joshua Wong, has by and large avoided the trap of entering this slippery slope towards confrontation. As the pandemic is already taking its enormous toll on the economy, it would of course be a catastrophe for German companies if good relations with China were to be seriously harmed by any political recklessness. The German industrial association declaring China a “strategic rival”, the protectionist introduction of stricter foreign investment screening and especially the German media’s hysteria over all things China has already left some ugly marks.
In times of a global calamity of such proportions, an escalation of the blame game will not yield favourable outcomes. Germany should make clear that Borrell’s and Von der Leyen’s position is not its own.
Stephan Ossenkopp is researcher of Schiller Institute in Germany and an international freelance editor.