Chancellor Angela Merkel praised her cabinet's recent stance on China, including a de facto ban on Huawei, a new strategy for the Indo-Pacific and a newfound willingness to proclaim Beijing's human rights violations. The apparent shift in Germany is welcome news in Washington, which Merkel has put under extraordinary pressure on relations with Beijing. Germany's dependence on China goes well beyond recent efforts, however, and there are reasons to doubt the sincerity of its alleged relegation.
The new German security legislation for information technology, for example, does not exclude Huawei from the country's cellular network by introducing a two-pronged approval process. The first track includes the technical certification by the German Pro-Huawei Federal Office for Information Security. The second track requires a "trustworthiness statement" to be assessed by various ministries, some of which – like the influential Ministry of Economy and Energy – are run by vocal Chinese doves.
In theory, the legislation gives Merkel the ability to ban Huawei by citing security concerns and subjecting Chinese telecommunications giants to regulatory doom. But if Beijing threatens to take revenge on a number of German business interests in China – from Merkel's coveted investment agreement between the European Union and China to BASF's 10 billion dollar plastics factory in Zhanjiang to the 17.5 billion dollar Business with electric vehicles from Volkswagen – it is unclear how much pain Berlin will be willing to take on Huawei's security problems.
Shortly after Berlin announced its IT security law, it became known that a high-ranking official suppressed information about China's influence at all levels of the German government, society and economy in 2018 for fear that it could damage economic relations. Axios said the Chancellor personally reviewed the report before visiting Beijing the following year while cracking down on democracy protests in Hong Kong. The result was 13 business deals between German and Chinese executives that were signed in the Great Hall of the People on Tiananmen Square and supervised by Merkel.
If there are reasons to question the effectiveness of Berlin's new IT policy, this also applies to the other China initiatives. Despite all public relations work on a "new direction" in the German China strategy, the latest Indo-Pacific guidelines of the Foreign Office avoid the US-led security order in Asia in favor of the so-called "entanglement" through trade, investment and development aid. On human rights, Merkel has made it clear that "solutions" to problems like Hong Kong "can only be reached through dialogue," while even more Hawk officials like Omid Nouripour, a green member of the parliamentary committee on foreign affairs, claimed that Berlin must have one Take "a much clearer stance" on human rights abuses in Xinjiang and Tibet, but stand before "full confrontation".
The tendency of the federal government to close behind business interests is also shown by the international financial scandal surrounding the German payment company Wirecard. A recent report by the Financial Times described the failure of German regulators, market watchers, anti-money laundering and other government agencies to play a role in uncovering the largest case of financial fraud in German post-war history, despite numerous indications. Although the German finance minister was reportedly aware of an explosive investigation against Wirecard last September, he did not prevent Merkel from lobbying for the German company on her business trip to China.
To be fair, behind the seemingly reckless pursuit of German economic interests in China is a serious strategy for stability. Berlin is working hard to avoid the mass losses in manufacturing and the economic upheaval that has rocked the United States, the United Kingdom and southern Europe in recent years. German officials believe the kind of economically-driven nationalist populism that led to Brexit and the election of US President Donald Trump must be avoided in Germany at all costs, and German neighbors could be the first to agree. China is not only a large and profitable market, it is also the engine of German export growth, the destination of German goods worth 100 billion US dollars last year and Germany's largest trading partner overall. Germans see China as the mechanism to maintain the only long era of domestic harmony their country has ever known.
The German heads of state and government are not helping their own case by combining seemingly merciless economic nationalism with lofty rhetoric about human rights and multilateralism. Actual decision-making in Berlin is remarkably consistent on all issues affecting Germany's economic well-being. In addition to securing relations with China, Merkel is currently defending the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline with Russia against impending sanctions by the US Senate and low defense spending against plans by the White House to withdraw 12,000 US troops from German soil. Regarding Berlin, Americans can list the sacrifices they have made for German security and prosperity until they are blue in the face. The advantages of economic cooperation with strategic competitors for internal stability remain a central national interest of Germany.
As long as it does, the German government will continue to irritate US officials by showing less interest in their own security than the United States and by creating the impression that if Germany ever became a Chinese it would be worse for Washington than for Berlin Dependency. However, realizing the coherence of Germany's foreign policy choices should help Americans ask better questions than in the past. How much focus on Germany does US policy in China require? How much German autonomy can Washington tolerate? What economic incentives and setbacks can the United States offer Germany to reduce the existential risk it sees in confronting China?
Washington and Berlin can still form a syndicate on issues such as trade and climate policy, but until Americans can find answers to these questions, it is unlikely that a broad consensus on China will emerge anytime soon. Appeals to Xinjiang and the Taiwan Strait will not offend because most Germans simply do not see any immediate threats to their security or prosperity there. Reports on Chinese espionage and surveillance, which Berlin will continue to view as an unpleasant but necessary price to pay for domestic political stability, are also not published.
The United States likes to criticize Germany for historically bogged down in everything from infrastructure and energy to technology and geopolitics. But after a country that it supposedly has so much influence over is choked on so many issues, US officials should take a look in the mirror. Americans seem to have forgotten in their own earlier assumptions of hegemony that powerful countries like Germany do not make radical changes in policy out of fairness to others. They do this out of necessity or fear. Until Berlin gets one or the other feeling, Germany's “reorientation” towards China will probably remain cosmetic.