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Mikko Huotari on challenges for the new German government in relations with China

In her 16 years as Chancellor, Angela Merkel visited China twelve times. In the Chinese state media, she is currently being given an almost wistful farewell and is often characterized as a guarantor of stability in German-Chinese relations. How did Merkel view China?

Mikko Huotari: Her view has certainly changed over time. At the beginning of her chancellorship, her China policy was much more normative and based on human rights. I'm thinking, for example, of the reception of the Dalai Lama in the Chancellor's Office in 2007. Back then there were rumblings in the relationship with Beijing and priorities were set differently. The chancellor was a pioneer in making China a country of central strategic importance for Germany, especially for the German economy. She would certainly still say today that it was right to travel to China twelve times and to invest so much time and energy into relations with Beijing.

China has changed dramatically in the 16 years that Merkel has been chancellor. The country has embarked on a highly authoritarian course under President Xi Jinping. In the words of Holocaust survivor and investor George Soros, Xi Jinping is the most dangerous opponent of open societies. Measured against this, Germany's China policy has hardly changed under Merkel. Why?

I think it is difficult for all politicians to move away from existing recipes for success. And Merkel sees her China policy, which focuses on trade, investment, integration and rapprochement, as a success. I also believe that she has accepted this reality: we cannot change Beijing and must create space for China internationally – and under these conditions we strive for good relations with the country. Of course, there are also structural forces in Germany that are pushing for this attitude, first and foremost many large German companies.

What has Merkel missed with regard to Beijing?

She failed to make China policy even more European at an earlier stage. The medium-term displacement effects of China's unfair competition and the risks of increasing dependence on China have also been given little political attention - if at all. When it came to human rights issues, Germany used to be voice concerns only behind closed doors, and only recently has it stepped up its international efforts. Under Merkel, however, Germany often missed out on a transparent and open process of understanding how we want to deal with Beijing in the future.

Germany has voted. Which coalition does Beijing want now, Traffic Light or Jamaica?

For Beijing, it doesn't make much of a difference. The People's Republic wants continuity, in the best case the softening of existing conflicts. And with Olaf Scholz or Armin Laschet as chancellor, it will get this continuity to a large extent. The SPD's weaker transatlantic fixation could make the currently likely government constellation even more attractive for Beijing. But Beijing is more concerned about the Greens and the FDP.

How much influence will the Greens and the FDP have on the new government's China policy?

The chancellor makes China policy. As a result, Foreign Minister Heiko Maas was not particularly present on this issue. This has not only been the case under Merkel. In this respect, the scope for the Greens and the FDP is limited, even if they get the Foreign Ministry. But if the Greens and FDP vote, they can succeed in shifting the basic consensus and core of the foreign policy debate, so that China is perceived not only as a partner, but also as a competitor and rival.

Will Germany's China policy change?

There will probably be no fundamental change in the short term.   Beijing’s view will be more sober and less expectant.  But in practice, even under the new government, there will remain a consensus that it is important to deepen economic relations with China, to remain in dialogue with Beijing and to explore opportunities for cooperation.

What are the biggest challenges for the new German government in relations with China?

Basically, the new government must explore how strongly it wants to rely on Beijing as a partner for the international order and for the German economy. In the process, much greater attention must be paid to risks associated with China. The People's Republic and the leadership in Beijing are under enormous pressure, which can be unleashed in many places. The bet on a successful, stable and globally integrated China is not a given. New risk scenarios are needed at the economic and political decision-making levels: How do we react if Beijing puts even more pressure on German companies? How do we react if there is a crisis in the Taiwan Strait? These are scenarios for which the new German government must prepare.

The question of whether Huawei is allowed to participate in the German 5G expansion has still not been decided. The Federal Intelligence Service has described the Chinese telecommunications company as untrustworthy. How will this turn out?

I don't expect there to be a blanket exclusion of Huawei.

What influence will the new German government have on European China policy?

The new German government has the chance to show that it can forge powerful coalitions that will make concrete progress in important policy areas in the coming months, such as the European Indo-Pacific Strategy, within the framework of the G7 and also with its partners in Washington.

The interview was conducted by Maximilian Kalkhof, China correspondent of German media outlet "Die Welt". It was originally published by "Welt" and "t-online".