German Weiqi

After the visit of Annalena Baerbock to Beijing few months ago, another significant event is the publication of German Strategy on China, a document that aims to describe the view of Germany on the future of the bilateral and multilateral relationships with China. The document is important, as it includes sections on how EU should align the position on China, and as it could also inspire similar policies in other countries like Switzerland.

It is important to mention that the document comes two years after EU parliament rejected the comprehensive trade agreement between EU and China, which included important clauses of opening Chinese markets in various industries for EU companies. The Strategy on China doesn’t refer to that Agreement, doesn’t comment it, and doesn’t propose any similar initiative to be renegotiated with China.

China is described as a great economic, technological, political and military power. The document seems to be written several months ago, as it doesn’t include any mention of recent diplomatic events like for example brokering Saudi-Iranian agreement to re-establish normal diplomatic relationships, or expected expansion of BRICS and SCO organizations where China plays key role.

It is not clear who are the authors of this document. But as Annalena Baerbock presented this document in MERICS forum, it could be assumed that MERICS analysts contributed in its preparation.

Here is my point of view on this Strategy.

First, the document shows a major weakness: there is no comprehensive scientific analysis of the current Chinese position, its economic and social situation, and its geopolitical goals and instruments. This analysis would be done with the objectives to understand the current situation and predict how the things will evolve in the future, and would serve as a kind of basis for definition of strategies. It is typically done by a multidisciplinary team from a state or private research institution mandated by the government. Either this analysis was missing, or (more probably) it was for some reason left out of the document.

Second, I have not seen that Angela Merkel had to write such documents in order to take decisions and develop and implement her strategies which benefited Germany for the long 16 years of her rule. So, I’m wondering what is the main reason of defining this Strategy. My perception is that this document needs primarily to ensure alignment within different political and economic circles in Germany that might have conflicting interests, and secondarily to show German leadership within EU and other EU-to-be candidates countries.

The document is structured in the following sections:
– Germany’s strategy on China as part of joint EU policy on China
– Blateral relations with China
– Strengthening Germany and the EU
– International cooperation
– Coordinating policy and buioding expertise on China

In the very beginning, the Strategy says: “China has changed, so we have to change and our approach to China too”.  Another very important statement is where China is qualified simultaneously as a “partner, competitor and systemic rival”. Germany will seek cooperation in sustainable development, global health and the prevention of pandemic. About competition, Germany will seek “de-risking, but not decoupling”. And about the rivalry, the Strategy puts responsibility on Chinese conduct that “caused the rivarly and competition to increase in recent years”.

There are very few areas basically where the Strategy talks about cooperation with China without conditioning it on Chinese changing its stance on “values”. The values are defined in terms of compliance to “rule-based order” and human rights (minorities and women’s rights). The document also says that human rights are “universal and cannot be watered down”. I’m not going to play the role of China’s advocate, but I doubt that we’ll such much cooperation here under these conditions, as we know very well that China contests such claims and defines the concept of human rights in their own way: mainly through the collective right to security and (how their call it) “harmonious development”.

One domain of cooperation where we don’t see much conditioning on human rights talks about negotiating, lobbying and influencing China to intensify its efforts in reducing carbon emissions, promoting biodiversity, reducing investments in coal-based power plants, contributing more in environmental damage financing, multilateral funds, and improving the conditions to supply German green technologies.

However, in the domain of scientific cooperation, this section comes back to the ideological component: development of relations in science and technology must be guided by values (already defined through the human rights and rule-based international order).

In the section devoted to EU, the Strategy talks about reducing dependencies on China and de-risking the supply chain, more specifically in terms of lithium batteries, photovoltaics, rare earths, and medicaments like antibiotics. One of the key sentences here is “EU must not become dependent on technologies from third countries that do not share our fundamental values.” This is a very interesting and valid point, but I think that one should first provide an explanation how this dependency was created in the beginning. This would help to understand what needs to be done. If this can be taken as ruling principle, a question can be asked if dependence on petrol as the final product of petrol refining technologies enters in this category, and what should be done to reduce the dependency on Arab countries.

In this subsection devoted to technologies (classical and digital), China is clearly seen as competitor. An important risk here has been highlighted, where due to the Military-Civil Fusion policy pursued by the Chinese government, in case of technology drain from EU countries to China, these technologies could be effectively used to strengthen Chinese military power. As the strategic response to this and other similar risks, the Strategy proposes the control of direct Chinese investments in EU.

Another interesting section is talking about potential Chinese interference in political processes in EU like disinformation campaigns, promoting undesired narratives, Chinese lobbying efforts or potential data transfer from EU to China or simply the cyber-attacks. As response measures, the Strategy lists specific actions like securing the IT infrastructure, developing Cyber Diplomacy Toolbox with cyberattack-related sanctions, and developing and promoting certification and standardization initiatives

As for the international relationships, the Strategy lists Chinese initiatives across geopolitical regions, but there are only two where the Strategy states something specific: strengthening Transatlantic Alliance and emphasizing the expectation from “Western Balkan” countries (read: Serbia) to align their policy with the one of Germany and EU. As response to BRI, the document states the importance of Global Gateway project jointly run by G7 countries.

Conclusion and recommendations

Overall, my impression is that the German Strategy on China 2023 does not have solid scientific foundation, it is unfortunately not comprehensive, not pragmatic and not enough specific to guide EU or German institutions on how to understand what is going on in China and in the world that increasingly depends on China, and to take measures that will long-term provide the most benefit for the German or EU citizens and the world population.

I see that the document doesn’t refer to any of the challenges of modern China, like large economic gap in the society between poor and rich, pollution, demographic decline, digital addiction, surveillance and loss of privacy, and the challenge of China to come up with a new economic model that doesn’t depend on the Western economic demand. The document states that the goal of China is global dominance, but it is not clear how this global dominance would be achieved and how it would look like. Would China deploy troops, finance colored revolutions, bribe politicians, use soft or hard power, or which combination of these factors would be the most foreseeable to be deployed by China to achieve the dominance?

I would also recommend to pay more attention to regional Chinese specificities. China is monolith only on the surface and when we dig deeper, we realize that there are great regional differences between provinces in economic and social development, interests and international contacts. In this sense, China is like a continent. Shandong is for example one of economically and demographically strongest provinces in China (remember Qingdao beer) and Germany, that has traditionally strong relations with it, can further develop very constructive and profitable relationships. These regional differences and respective opportunities should be explored more so to come up with an effective national strategy on China.

The part of strategy on technological cooperation (or competition) lacks more substance. Already famous Australian study cites Chinese dominance in 37 out of 44 technology domains. This in-depth study includes a set of recommendations for Western democracies, which we can’t find in the German Strategy on China. Let’s take for example space industry. We know about the plans of China to launch lower-orbit satellites very much like Elon Musk’s Starlink. China is also building and expanding its own orbital station, and we know that Russians will stop using ISS after 2030. What are the plans of Germany on using its resources or cooperating with the US to compete with these ambitious Chinese projects? How does ESA’s lunar mission fits into this strategy?

What about financial strategy related to the ongoing de-dollarization and Chinese Digital Yuan? Euro is still widely used as the 2nd global reserve currency. I would expect in this Strategy to see how European financial institutions see China and the global financial system, and how to defend the position of Euro in these ongoing processes.

The use of soft power is completely lacking. The Strategy mentions how Chinese cultural centers in Germany operate without any control and the unequal conditions of German cultural centers in China. But this completely misses the point. Chinese interest for the cultural dominance over the rest of the world is nonexistent, and it was always like this. It was not Chinese who went to Japan one thousands years ago to spread Chinese culture, it was rather Japanese who came to China to learn science, literature, and public administration. So, the role of Confucius cultural centers is rather symbolic. People don’t learn Chinese language in these centers. However, the influence of other cultures on Chinese people was always enormous and deep. Take for example Buddhism which came from India, or cultural influence in medieval times by Matteo Ricci who introduced to China the Western philosophy, mathematics and Christianity. Or Marxism at the beginning of 20th century coming from Russia and France, and shaping Chinese political system even today. Or the current capitalism and consumerism values coming from the US. Not to mention Hong Kongese and Taiwanses pop music, Korean dramas or the fact that most of the wealthy parents in China want their children to learn to play Western instruments, buy German pianos, or send them to go to Paris and Florence to learn painting. More and more urban Chinese nowadays convert to Christianity and if you go to Chinese furniture shops, you will see high demand for the classical European-style furniture.

Germany and Western Europe can significantly leverage its cultural appeal and influence in all kinds of arts like theater, music, design, architecture, dance, acrobatics, film etc. They can also leverage its scientific and technological achievements, by playing simultaneously cooperative and competitive roles. There are many stones that can be put by Germany and Europe on this international Weiqi board in very interesting positions, but I would recommend to the authors of this Strategy to learn first how to play Weiqi, so to avoid mistaking this game for boxing. The goal in Weiqi is not to be confrontational, but to gain space.