Even before the German chancellor’s plane took off, the timing of this trip to China had become a topic for debate and criticism both inside and outside Germany.
Olaf Scholz, accompanied by a business delegation, is the first G7 leader to visit Beijing since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
He is also the first to meet President Xi Jinping since he tightened his grip on power and secured an unprecedented third term.
Amid intense scrutiny in Berlin, Paris, Brussels and further afield, the chancellor has written editorials in Politico and the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung defending his decision to go.
“China remains an important business and trading partner for Germany and Europe – we don’t want to decouple from it. But what does China want?” he asks in Politico, while committing to discuss “difficult topics” as well as economic realities which mean the government needs to reduce “risky dependencies”.
China is Germany’s biggest trading partner so, from an economic perspective, Friday’s meeting is understandable, but critics fear past mistakes may be repeated if the country becomes too reliant on another authoritarian power as it previously did with Russia.
“Germany is still extremely dependent economically on China so that they could be bullied into silence,” warns Wenzel Michalski, Germany director of Human Rights Watch.
Between January and June this year, German businesses invested more than €10bn in the country, according to a study by the German Economic Institute (IW).
‘We must learn lessons’
Figures this week from the Federal Statistical Office show most imports also came from China, with a 5.4% increase on the month in September, while exports back the other way dipped by 2%.
Having been bitten hard during the war in Ukraine by an overreliance on Russian energy, many are keen to avoid the same pitfalls with Beijing.
“We must learn lessons, and learning lessons means that we must reduce unilateral dependencies wherever possible. This applies to China in particular,” German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier told public broadcaster ARD on a recent visit to Kyiv.
The balance between isolation and hegemonic dominance
Government sources confirmed while there is no policy to isolate China, hegemonic dominance in the region is incompatible with a world order Germany envisions.
In recent years, Berlin has become more hawkish in some of its actions, for example, sending a warship to the South China Sea in 2021 for the first time in almost two decades, and dispatching fighter jets to Australia, Japan and South Korea earlier this year.
However, the chancellor’s decision last week to push through a cabinet decision to allow Chinese firm Cosco to invest in a terminal at Hamburg port despite opposition from his coalition partners is seen by some as a bad omen.
Opposition from six government ministries led to a compromised deal with Cosco getting a 24.9% stake rather than 35%.
A new China strategy
But Germany’s foreign minister remains unconvinced and has doubled down on demands for a “new China strategy”.
Annalena Baerbock has said she expects Olaf Scholz to raise the issues of human rights, international law and fair conditions of competition during his visit, according to Der Spiegel.
“Now it is crucial to make clear in China the messages that we laid down together in the coalition agreement,” she said.
“As is well known, we clearly stated in the coalition agreement that China is our partner on global issues, that we cannot decouple in a globalized world, but that China is also a competitor and increasingly a systemic rival.”
The German government is considering issues like tensions over Taiwan and Hong Kong and human rights concerns as it drafts its first China strategy due for release next year.
‘Decoupling is the wrong answer’
However, Scholz’ insistence that “decoupling is the wrong answer” has left some concerned he won’t stand up to Xi Jinping.
Dolkun Isa, president of the World Uyghur Congress, said: “Despite the criticism of international partners, Chancellor Olaf Scholz decided to visit China with a business delegation.
“Just a week ago, the German secret services warned against a dependency on China.
“In times when the Chinese government is committing international crimes against Uyghurs, including genocide, the trip of the chancellor not only sends a wrong message to the world but also poses a major risk for Germany’s national security.”
‘We will pay a much higher price in the foreseeable future if we are not principled now’
China has consistently denied allegations of abuse in Xinjiang region – another reason the chancellor needs to send a clear message that human rights are paramount, according to campaigners.
Mr Michalski said: “I’m not against the trip to China but if it’s business as usual that should end now because we have experienced what it means when we look at Russia.
“We will pay a much higher price in the foreseeable future if we are not principled now.
“For a quick fix for the economic misery we are facing, that would be too short sighted.”
‘Business as usual’ no longer an option
Official sources confirmed that the aim of the trip is not a continuation of earlier approaches, with Mr Scholz writing: “It is precisely because ‘business as usual’ is no longer an option in these circumstances that I’m travelling to Beijing”.
We’re told the German government wants to look at where cooperation is possible but to address areas including war and peace where China plays an essential role.
Its close relations with Russia mean its influence could be critical in the direction of the war in Ukraine, and its sheer size makes it crucial to topics such as climate change, globalisation and food security.
Success not guaranteed
While success is not guaranteed, the feeling is that not to try at all would be fundamentally wrong.
Furthermore, the current economic pressures cannot be ignored by the chancellor.
While no company deals are reportedly planned, the rocketing cost of living, soaring energy prices, high inflation and signals the eurozone manufacturing economy is in recession are overshadow this trip.
Relations are crucial for both sides
Tim Rühlig, China expert at the German Council on Foreign Relations, said: “Sino-German relations are crucial for both sides, primarily for reasons of economic cooperation.
“The two countries have developed a trusted relationship with a strategic partnership.
“In the last few years, the relations have suffered – not least due to China’s more aggressive international behaviour and the changing geopolitical context.
“The solution is not full decoupling from China but reducing critical dependencies.
“This is complex, time consuming and costly but doable if there is enough political will.”
With potential economic, political and moral implications, the chancellor faces a tightrope which he must carefully tread, all the while under the watchful gaze of China sceptics at home and aboard.