By Ariane Reimers (text) and Vincent Brussee (data)
It is still not certain which political parties will govern Germany for the next four years – and the next government’s China policy is even more unclear. Although the left-leaning Social Democrats and Greens and the liberal Free Democrats are now trying to forge a coalition, any eventual stance towards China is hard to discern after an election campaign in which the foreign-policy positions of the seven parties in parliament played little or no role.
For the last 16 years, it was Chancellor Merkel who shaped Germany's relations with China. In her first years as head of government, she pursued a distinctly values-based approach, which, for example, saw her play host to the Dalai Lama in the Chancellery. But with the global financial crisis of 2008-2009 at the latest, she adopted a pragmatic, pro-business course that late 2020 culminated in a deal about the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment between the EU and China (even if the European Parliament since shelved it).
In retrospect, the Merkel years will stand for a policy that aimed for a partnership with China and to address contentious issues, especially human-rights related ones, by means of "quiet diplomacy." Germany’s reward for this stance was a privileged bilateral relationship.
China's prominence in German political debate has risen sharply since 2017
The key question is whether the next government will continue on this path. The Green Party and the Free Democratic Party (FDP) have been in opposition since 2005 and 2013, respectively, and their attitudes towards China are untested by the pressures of day-to-day government. The Social Democratic Party (SPD) has been in power for the past eight years, but played only a minor role in Merkel’s China policy. To get a more substantive insight into the parties' positions on China, it is worth considering how Germany discussed China in recent years – and, in particular, how Germany’ Bundestag debated issues relating to it.
The prominence of China in German politics increased markedly over the last few years (figure 1). In the last legislative period, from late 2017 to late last month, the number of parliamentary debates in which China was mentioned rose sharply. The country was rarely at the center of these exchanges, but was referenced readily as an example of an autocratic system, a counter pole to the US, or an emerging great power with expansionist traits.