The Bundeskanzleramt buildig in October.
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Germany’s post-election China policy: it’s not what, it’s how

The new German government will not only need to decide what its China policy will be, but how to shape it. The central question: Will China policy remain Chancellor policy?

Course change or business as usual? This question shapes the debate on the future of Germany’s China policy. The general mood in Germany toward China has become more critical. Most Germans are now in favor of a more hardline stance toward Beijing, even if this comprises economic relations. For some years the Federation of German Industries (BDI) has adopted a sober tone when discussing China.

Additionally, the election manifestos of the potential governing parties all take a critical approach toward relations with China. The Greens and the FDP in particular, both kingmakers in a potential three-party coalition, make a case for a tougher stance.

The contours of Germany’s future China policy are difficult to define

Nonetheless, election programs don’t automatically translate into new policies. Of course, there continue to be German actors in politics and business that would rather stay the course. The new German government may change its wording when dealing with China, even if only for appearances. During the campaign, Greens leader Annalena Baerbock adopted the rhetoric “dialogue and toughness” to try shifting the foreign policy narrative.

It remains unclear how much this new rhetoric will be backed up with substance, will the future government continue Merkel’s policies but engage in more distant rhetoric? Or will they discover a new strategic orientation that initiates a course change? The contours of Germany’s future China policy are difficult to define.

Germany at a crossroads

Germany’s next government won’t have much time to sort itself out. When it comes to China, it will be under pressure to make decisions. Upcoming events, such as the Winter Olympics in Beijing, Huawei’s role in its 5G rollout, the continuation of European sanctions over Xinjiang, will force Germany to take a clear position. To navigate these challenges, the future ruling coalition will need foresighted decision-making processes and coordination structures. The central question is: will China policy remain Chancellor policy?

A ruling coalition of three different political parties – the currently most likely scenario – requires different political processes and structures. The SPD has already signaled that these new circumstances require a different kind of governance, one that talks to people at eye level and improves coordination between the ruling parties.

This could mean that China policy is no longer conducted solely from the Chancellor’s office, which would come at the expense of the Federal Foreign Office. This has implications both for the strategic orientation of Germany’s China policy and its operationalization.

A three-party government promises a broader lineup on China policy

Due to the realities of three-party-coalition politics, the future German government may see an even broader lineup on China policy, a necessity because relations with China affect almost every policy field. The Foreign Office, the Ministry of Education and Research, the Environment Agency, the Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy and the Ministry of Finance all have to deal with China in some way. Moreover, geopolitical developments can no longer be separated from other policy areas.

Any future government will need to consider all aspects of the big picture before they can pursue a coherent strategy. Under these circumstances, China policy should be coordinated holistically and ideally at the European level and not locked away within individual ministries.

For this to work, existing structures should be improved upon and new ones built. The State Secretary Committee on China, within the Foreign Office, would benefit from a larger role. Additionally, it would be useful to establish a China-Coordinator position modeled on the Transatlantic and Russia coordinators. It would also be important to integrate China policy within the Indo-Pacific strategy. And the subnational role of the federal states and local governments should be given greater consideration.

China policy experts needed

Personnel with competencies in China policy would be vital for a strategically matured approach. Today, China policy impacts countless ministries. Further training, workshops as well as new hires could strengthen existing competencies. Different localized services should be involved as well, for example, the State Offices for the Protection of the Constitution (Landesämter für Verfassungsschutz).

Countless governments are already expanding their capacities to comprehensively operate China policy in all its different facets. The US State Department plans to hire up to 30 new China-focused officials, and the CIA is creating a new “China Mission Center.” The Dutch government has created an internal think tank on China, the “China Knowledge Network (CKN)”, to retain expertise and support local governments when dealing with China.

When asking the question of what the next German government’s China policy will be, the government should not lose sight of how they will pursue it.