In what is likely to be her ‘last dance’ in China politics, Chancellor Angela Merkel led her cabinet into the sixth German-Chinese government consultations on Wednesday. Optimism and positivity surrounded its beginnings in 2011. Ten years later, relations are beset by uncertainty and tension.
The recent EU-imposed sanctions on China were met by an immediate, tougher, response from the Chinese side. Hence, the “business as usual” spirit of the talks signals Germany’s desire to maintain its privileged partnership with China - even in these tense times.
Results of the discussions are, nevertheless, underwhelming. Germany and China signed six letters of intent. These included, deeper climate and environmental cooperation, a pandemic action plan, joint food safety regulation and cooperation in transport of dangerous goods. These rather middle-of-the-road areas offer little potential for conflict.
Previous years’ consultations set far more ambitious goals. In 2014, China and Germany celebrated their “innovation partnership”. In 2018, the two countries wanted to develop common standards for autonomous driving, establish a dialogue on cybersecurity and promote greater civil society exchange. In comparison, the two sides seem short of ambition in 2021, struggling to find as much common ground.
Continuation of the human rights dialogue?
This lowered ambition extended to the German not holding a press conference. This meant Chancellor Angela Merkel again gave up the opportunity to comment on the sanctions. In her opening statement, she mentioned only that “we can address difficult issues and put everything on the table”. Specifically, she addressed the situation in Hong Kong as well as expressing desire to continue the human rights dialogue with China.
Prime Minister Li Keqiang noted differences of opinion between the two countries and said: "As long as we communicate and exchange ideas on the basis of equal treatment and mutual non-interference in internal affairs," there would be favourable conditions for dialogue and cooperation.
It remains to be seen whether the Chinese side will comply with the Chancellor's wishes and continue the bilateral human rights dialogue. Today, China can afford to forego critical discussions. And even if they did, the results of these dialogue formats have so far been of little practical relevance.
Germany has decided to continue good relations with China and to keep them at a high level. One reason are certainly the close economic ties, but there is also the assessment that a more confrontational course does not offer any constructive solutions. Internationally, the tide has changed, the EU is much more critical of China, and the USA sees itself in extreme and extensive systemic competition. The German government could find itself increasingly alone with its position among the western states.
At the time of editing, neither the communiqué of the foreign ministers nor a joint declaration of the government consultations had been published.
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