German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has urged China to use its influence on Russia to stop the war in Ukraine, during talks with President Xi Jinping in Beijing.
Mr Scholz said both countries had agreed Russia’s nuclear threats were “irresponsible and highly dangerous”. The Chinese president has refused to condemn Vladimir Putin’s invasion.
But he said the global community should back bids to end the crisis peacefully and oppose the use or threatened use of nuclear arms, Chinese reports said.
The trip has sparked concern in Germany and elsewhere in Europe, after the Chinese leader recently cemented his grip on power.
He’s the first Western leader to travel to Beijing since the global pandemic and the first to meet President Xi since he tightened his grip on power at the Communist Party National Congress last month.
The timing is seen as highly questionable by many in Europe – including members of Mr Scholz’s own government, who worry that his presence will serve to burnish the domestic reputation of an increasingly authoritarian Mr Xi.
But the German chancellor, like his predecessor Angela Merkel, argues that global problems can only be solved through co-operation with China. Meeting face to face, he said, facilitated discussion, even of issues over which both countries strongly disagree.
There was a mutual acknowledgment that times were tough; President Xi expressed his desire to work together in “times of change and turmoil”.
Mr Scholz repeated Germany’s position on Taiwan – any change of the status quo must be peaceful and with mutual agreement – and on human rights – they must be protected, especially with regard to minorities in Xinjiang.
The visit will be closely scrutinised in Europe’s capitals.
Mr Scholz came to power promising a values-led foreign policy and a change in Germany’s approach to China; a pledge he reiterated prior to his visit. “If China is changing then our approach to China must change,” he said.
But many in Germany and in Europe simply don’t trust him on that; in part because of a recent – and controversial – proposal to sell a stake in the port of Hamburg to a Chinese company.
Six of his ministers opposed the deal and the security services urged caution but Mr Scholz reportedly forced through an agreement, albeit one that reduced the size and influence of the stake. The suspicion in Berlin was that he wanted a “gift” to take to China.
And Mr Scholz chose to travel with a delegation of executives from German companies like BASF, Volkswagen and Bayer.
“The signal that’s being sent is that we want to extend and intensify our economic co-operation,” said one Green politician, whose party has long sought a tougher stance on China.
Taking executives along was standard practice for Mr Scholz’s predecessor, Angela Merkel, who pursued a policy of “Change through Trade,” believing that economic ties could influence political relations with countries like China and Russia.
But Germany’s reliance on cheap Russian energy laid bare the inherent flaws of that strategy. And China, once a partner, is now also viewed as a rival in Berlin.
And, when President Xi urged “deeper co-operation” with Berlin on Friday, a shudder will have run down the spine of those who worry that German business is too closely woven into China. What would happen they ask, in the event that China invaded Taiwan?
More than a million German jobs depend on the relationship.
Take, as an example, the car giant Daimler which sells more than a third of its vehicles in China. In the first half of this year, German businesses invested more in the country than ever before; the chemical company BASF has just opened a new plant in south China and expects to invest €10bn (£8.75bn) in the site by the end of this decade.
Few in Berlin would urge Germany to “decouple” from China. As one business leader put it on the eve of Mr Scholz’s trip: “The advice can only be not to smash any Chinese porcelain now.” But there is considerable appetite to insulate Germany against too great a dependency.
And Mr Scholz must perform a tricky balancing act. Protect the German economy without risking accusations (there’ve been a fair few in recent months) that he’s putting German business interests above all others.
Mr Scholz’s response to a shifting China may yet come to be the defining test of his chancellorship. Germany is the EU’s most powerful economy and arguably most influential member, so what it says and does matters.
I once suggested former Angela Merkel could be viewed at times like a European Donald Trump for the way she tended to put Germany first.
Wider EU concerns were ignored in favour of lucrative German energy and trade contracts with Russia and China. She demanded EU austerity measures for Mediterranean member states during the eurozone crisis to protect German taxpayers from incurring shared debt.
Olaf Scholz is Mrs Merkel’s successor in far more than just name, in the minds of many EU leaders.
His massive aid package to help German businesses with high energy prices is viewed as giving them an unfair competitive advantage on the European single market.
And his trip to China, announced but not co-ordinated with others in the EU, ruffled feathers Europe-wide. France’s Emmanuel Macron recently warned Mr Scholz he risked becoming isolated.
As Europe, and Germany first and foremost, weans itself off its dependency on Russian gas, the question is this: Is Berlin, blinded by the prospect of business deals, binding itself too close to China?
French President Emmanuel Macron has been pushing for years for the EU to become less beholden to Beijing. Critics accused him of protectionism.
But after global supply-chain breakdowns during the Covid-19 pandemic, the “weaponisation” of energy imports/exports after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Donald Trump’s presidency, it became clear Europe should no longer rely so heavily on the US in terms of security.
With Mr Macron’s insistence on the continent becoming more cohesive and self-reliant, diversifying its trade partners began to seem sensible to Brussels. Olaf Scholz is viewed as worryingly out of step.