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Germany and China – nuances are lost

By Rudolf Scharping

From the US State Department, the Office of the Historian: “Chinese Communists: Short range – no change. Long range – we do not want 800,000,000 living in angry isolation. We want contact … (want) China – cooperative member of international community ….”; Richard Nixon in January 1969. Anyone who follows the developments up to the admission of the People’s Republic of China to the United Nations (1975) or the establishment of relations with the United States (1979) quickly realizes: Never in recent decades has there been so little direct interaction between China and the world.

Almost three years of the Covid pandemic have led to enormous stress, be it in human or cultural, in scientific, economic or political exchanges. When people communicate “screen to screen”, nuances are lost, that is, opportunities for greater understanding, for gradual rapprochement, or even communication. Russia’s attack on Ukraine exacerbates this alienation.

The answers to the overlapping (and mutually exacerbating) threats to climate and biodiversity, to peace and stable development, to health or to the cohesion of societies, are, in part, fundamentally different. Germany and Europe should take a close look.

This year also marks the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Japan and China. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida recently spoke of the goal of constructive and stable relations between the two countries. Like South Korea, Australia and New Zealand, the Japanese have ratified the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) with China and the ASEAN countries. It is the world’s largest free trade area and represents the economic and political interest in mutual and stable development for one-third of mankind, as well as the world’s economic performance.

Acquiring a more differentiated picture of reality

India, Brazil, South Africa, and China belong to those states that consider Russia’s attack on Ukraine to be an overly European matter. For example, Indian companies are making good business by purchasing Russian oil (at a discount) and reselling the resulting products (at global market prices).

Germany and Europe should gain a more differentiated picture of reality, including China. The same applies vice versa. When diplomatic relations were established in 1972, the Cultural Revolution was raging in China, destroying people, tearing families apart, ruining China in every way. The political situation was complex, to say the least. But Germany established relations and contributed to constructive peace and development policies.

And today: The slogan of “dependency” spreads, which can, even must, be countered by “decoupling”. If the mutual dependencies are observed rationally, the emerging picture is one of mutually dependent economies and societies.

Whether it is pharmaceutical products (up to 70 percent from China) or semiconductors, whether it is intermediate products for mechanical and plant engineering or the chemical industry, whether it is rare earths, or other materials that are vital for our energy transition – the list could go on and on, in both directions. Trade has never been more extensive, investments never higher, research and development never more intensive – all despite Covid. But there is much more at stake than the economic benefits from a global division of labor and its safeguarding within a stable political framework.

China does not need an international escalation

The foundations of human life are being challenged worldwide. We will only find future-proof answers to these challenges together. Two examples: Without China, there is no globally viable answer to climate change. China’s goals are ambitious, but they fall short of what is needed and of what is technically possible. However, this will only change if better solutions are found for all sides in negotiations.

Supply chains must become more resilient, and the procurement of raw materials, energy and other products more diversified – but this is not directed against anyone, but rather in line with respective interests. This is immediately understood in China – as RCEP recently reminded everyone. Moreover: China, the USA and also Europe have to master such great challenges “at home”, as no one needs an escalating international situation.

Wherever sober representation of interests becomes rhetorically charged, escalation is not far away. Democratic societies unite interests and positions. There can be no compromise on this. This is also clear in China. Who says what on which occasion and how much is expected of his counterpart is another matter. As a note: In 1992, the Japanese emperor visited China; it was a time of the most extensive expressions of friendship. Akihito expressed his “regret” (!) about other (not further discussed) parts of history.

We would cry out in outrage if a German head of state were to make such a remark in Poland or France about the history between, say, 1830 and 1945. The Chinese hosts of the Tenno, however, only kindly said that there was no need for this remark; and that is exactly how it was meant at that time and under the circumstances of that time.

Appeal to Beijing to act responsibly

China must decide whether it wants to “rebuild” the foundations of its success (especially since joining the WTO). This is one way to perceive some of the decisions made in recent years. Whether the policy of reform and opening will continue as surely as the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers flow downstream remains to be seen.

In any case, the economic consequences of the repression surrounding Covid will not be the only ones – the broad support among the Chinese population in 2020 has turned into frustration and anger, to an extent that even the leadership in Beijing cannot simply ignore. And not least: The fact that the brutal consequences of the Ukraine war on global food distribution could be mitigated with the help of the United Nations and Turkey is a good sign – for China, it is rather an urgent call to act really actively and responsibly.

Because peace is also a global challenge that cannot be answered sustainably without China. Henry Kissinger had been asked about Pelosi’s Taiwan visit (which helped no one); his hope was that the US would pursue foreign policy guided by interests, not internal politics.

Rudolf Scharping served as Minister of Defense of the Federal Republic of Germany between 1998 and 2002 and is the former Federal Chairman of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD). With his consultancy firm RSBK, he has helped companies enter the Chinese market for over 15 years.

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