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China’s Premier Li Keqiang will visit Berlin and Brussels between May 30 and June 2. Li will meet with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin on Wednesday. Cabinet members from both sides will discuss policy cooperation on issues like innovation and finance.

Sebastian Heilmann, President of the Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS), answers questions on the upcoming visit:

Frictions in the transatlantic alliance after the election of Donald Trump as US President seem to have brought Germany and China closer together. How does this feature in Li Keqiang’s visit?

In several important policy areas, Germany and China currently have more in common than the transatlantic partners. They have joint interests in global trade and climate policy, and both sides have stressed their commitment to advance the multilateral global order.

Li’s visit also serves to prepare the state visit of China’s President Xi Jinping to Germany ahead of the G20 summit in Hamburg in July. The depth and breadth of high-level German-Chinese government contacts this year is remarkable, and it is clearly a response to the current US administration’s foreign policy, which is viewed as unreliable, inconsistent and short-sighted in Beijing and in Berlin.

China is interested in stepping up its cooperation with the EU. What does the Chinese government expect from Germany and Europe?

China is actively looking for reliable partners in Europe and Germany to protect its interests and to hedge against an unreliable United States. China’s “Belt and Road Initiative” to create a cross-continental economic sphere in Eurasia implicitly excludes a leading role by the United States. China has used the opening created by the Trump administration’s erratic foreign policy to promote its own political and financial diplomacy with determination and great skill.

How have Sino-German relations changed since Trump became US President? In which areas do you see a rapprochement?

The German government is very interested in a reliable cooperation with China on a number of issues. We currently don’t see Germany “pivoting” from the US to China, but the recent demonstrations of openness and friendliness between Germany and China have been remarkable.

The Chinese government for its part has launched a charm offensive vis-à-vis Germany following the US presidential election. China offered concessions on the two major sources of bilateral friction over the previous months: One is the planned introduction of quotas for e-mobility, which had scared German car makers. The other is the registration of Germany’s political foundations under its new NGO law.

These problems are not entirely solved, however. Despite high-level assurances, China’s promise to delay the introduction of the quota for electric vehicles or to lower the quota requirements, has not yet been implemented on the ministerial level. German political foundations are now officially registered and approved in China, but it is still unclear how they will operate under the new law. At the same time, a number of other German NGOs are still waiting to be registered.

How will China’s relations to Germany and Europe develop? Will China play a more important role in German and European foreign policy?

Consultations with China are likely to play a bigger role, especially if US foreign policy objectives increasingly clash with core European interests. If the Trump administration continues its uncompromising course at the G20 summit in July, this will speed up Europe’s necessary diplomatic and strategic realignment. In a future European foreign policy, China will play a bigger role, as a difficult yet predictable diplomatic partner.

What are the areas where differences with China will continue?

Differences will continue to exist. There is no foreseeable progress on the thorny issue of market access for German and international companies in China. Both sides have fundamental differences on the rule of law.

Most of all, we have to expect growing tensions in German-Chinese economic relations over cyber policy. German companies’ data could face risks in the Chinese market since they might have to disclose sensitive data to Chinese authorities or state-approved rating agencies. China is charging ahead with its cyber security legislation, and China’s project to build a big-data enabled “social credit system” will fundamentally impact the way international companies do business in China.


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