Focus topics

No decoupling from China

By Nils Schmid
Nils Schmid is the Foreign Policy Spokesman of the SPD’s parliamentary group in the Bundestag.

The COVID vaccine – the great hope in the little vials – is our most effective weapon in the fight against the pandemic. Consequently, the distribution of the scarce commodity is a political issue not only in Germany but worldwide. The photos of government representatives having themselves photographed when vaccines made in China arrived, therefore, went around the world in no time at all. They are images meant to tell the story of the Chinese leadership’s supposed success, of a China that defeated COVID-19 and now wants to make vaccines available to the world as a “global public good” (Xi Jinping), while the West is still struggling with the virus at home.

China is not only a partner and economic competitor for Germany, but it’s also a systemic rival. It has become increasingly clear, especially in recent years, that this limits the possibilities for cooperation and fair competition.

More vaccine multilateralism

To meet the boundless challenges of our time – from climate change to pandemics – we must work together, if only out of self-interest. The rapid spread of viral mutants reminds us of our interdependence. In our globalized world, no one is safe as long as the virus continues to ravage some regions of the world and the resulting mutations threaten us. Instead of vaccine nationalism and bilateral vaccine diplomacy, we, therefore, need more vaccine multilateralism because this is the only way to achieve rapid and equitable distribution of vaccines. Both China and the West must therefore continue to increase support for the Covax global vaccination program.

An honest approach to mistakes is also part of a partnership. Only this way can we learn the right lessons from today’s crisis for tomorrow’s pandemics. There was justified criticism of the German government for the export ban on respiratory masks in spring 2020, as well as the current criticism of the EU’s vaccine procurement. Equally, clear criticism must be possible of the weaknesses of COVID management in China – especially the irresponsible lack of transparency surrounding the outbreak in Wuhan. Findings about the virus outbreak must be incorporated into our deliberations on how we can make the multilateral health architecture more resilient to future crises. For this, we also need cooperation with China, which is not the first time it has been the source of a pandemic.

Developing relations in Asia

The COVID-19 pandemic and the measures taken against it triggered a dramatic slump in the global economy and showed us how far our interdependence with China has advanced. But asymmetric dependencies in systemically important areas also make us vulnerable, as the supply shortages of medical goods at the start of the pandemic showed. However, we will continue to reject calls for decoupling from China, as this would benefit no one and certainly not our export industry. What is needed instead is a partial re-coupling that reduces one-sided dependencies, for example, by further diversifying our relations in Asia, as envisaged in the German Federal Government’s Indo-Pacific guidelines. Interdependencies are not a bad thing per se either, because mutual dependencies promote cooperation. In view of China’s economic successes, however, we should demand a level playing field and stricter reciprocity in our trade relations, especially in the EU-China investment agreement.

The COVID crisis is acting as a catalyst in the systemic conflict with China. The Chinese economy is already humming again and is becoming – as it did after the economic crisis after 2008 – the engine of global recovery. The successes are fuelling the debate about the advantages and disadvantages of the Western system of a democratic constitutional state with a social market economy versus the Chinese surveillance dictatorship with a controlled state economy. The illusionless view of China’s development also shows that hopes for political liberalization in the country and integration into a liberal world order will not be fulfilled in the foreseeable future. On the contrary, the Chinese leadership is becoming increasingly repressive internally and aggressive externally, as demonstrated by the massive human rights violations against the Uyghurs in Xinjiang, the far-reaching encroachment on Hong Kong’s autonomy, and the threatening military gestures against Taiwan.

Europe needs a China policy

It is clear to us that we can only successfully defend our values and interests against China together with our European and transatlantic partners. We must therefore prevent China from driving a wedge between us by “bilateralizing” relations. What we need is a common robust China policy. Firmly anchored in the Western community of security and values, this is our foundation for a political dialogue with Beijing on an equal footing. Germany and the EU should therefore seize the opportunity that, in Joe Biden, we once again have a convinced democrat at our side and closely coordinate our China policy with him.

Strengthening democracy instead of China containment

Thanks to the COVID-19 vaccines, there is light at the end of the tunnel in the crisis. Unfortunately, we lack a similarly effective means of containing autocratic tendencies in the world. But here, too, the resilience of our own system – the health of our democracy – is crucial. So instead of China’s containment, we need first and foremost to strengthen democracy – at home and around the world. That’s why we should actively support the “Summit for Democracy” that President Biden has announced – so that the torch of democracy will soon shine brightly again.


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