Is China’s relationship with the EU kaput?

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s telephone chat with President Xi Jinping is unlikely to repair the damage

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State-run media has hyped up the telephone tête-à-tête between China’s President Xi Jinping and Germany’s new Chancellor Olaf Scholz.

Global Times put a positive spin on the chat, which “advanced” the “friendship” between the two countries.

China Daily echoed a similar view, with Comrade Xi calling the discussions an opportunity to “strengthen” ties

As for the ruling Communist Party’s official news agency, Xinhua gushed that the talks will play a “positive role in stabilizing China-EU” relations. 

But that might be hot-air hubris in the world of realpolitik. 

“Controversially, Scholz also said that he hoped the stalled [China-European Union] investment deal ‘will take effect as soon as possible,’” Politico, the geopolitical media site based in the United States, stated, referring to the Chinese reports. 

“The remark would seem to contradict the coalition agreement Scholz’s Social Democratic Party struck with two other parties [the Greens and the Free Democrats] to form his current government,” it said, pointing out those “remarks” had not been confirmed in Berlin.

Tangled ties:

  • Germany is the fourth-largest economy in the world.
  • It is also the most influential member of the 27 states in the EU.
  • But stable relations with Beijing are crucial for Germany’s economy.
  • China is the country’s biggest trading partner.
  • Goods worth €212.1 billion, or US$256.7 billion, were traded between the two nations last year.
  • Also, it is Germany’s most important market for its massive automotive industry.

Charm offensive: “It is hoped that Germany will continue to play a positive role in stabilizing China-EU relations and inject stability and positive energy into [those] relations,” Xi told Scholz as reported by Xinhua.

Ultimately, any form of re-engagement will be difficult and precarious.

Francesca Ghiretti of the Mercator Institute for China Studies

Reality check: Scholz has a difficult balancing act when it comes to China. Big business, such as influential auto giants BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen, just wants a cozy relationship with Beijing. 

Money over morals: Rampant human rights violations against the Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang, the political destruction of Hong Kong and the military threats to the democratic island of Taiwan are considered mere sideshows for China’s apologists.

Delve deeper: A coalition of 200 global campaign groups issued a statement in September, saying “at least two million Muslims – including Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and Uzbeks – are locked in ‘re-education camps’ in China.”

Death of a city: Social justice in Hong Kong has also been trampled on. “Freedom and democracy are under attack [while] youth activists are being rounded up and imprisoned en masse,” the campaign groups warned.

Alternative view: “Beijing [has] rejected accusations of ‘genocide’ and ‘forced labor’ in Xinjiang as the biggest lie of the century,” state-run China Daily said in an editorial this week, pedaling Beijing’s obnoxious propaganda.

Big picture: China’s aggressive foreign policy has turned friends into foes. The mood in the broader EU is one of suspicion when it comes to Beijing. Lithuania has already been singled out for treatment because of its close ties with Taiwan.

Different values: “Ultimately, the reason why any form of re-engagement will be difficult and precarious is that the political direction of China is moving away from open dialogue, the values the EU believes in and the rule of law,” Francesca Ghiretti, an analyst at the Mercator Institute for China Studies, said. 

Pragmatic approach: “That is not likely to change in the medium term … The EU’s foreign policy towards China has been developing to respond to what China is today rather than what we would want it to be,” she wrote in a commentary for the Berlin-based think tank.

China Factor comment: Sino-German relations flourished during the Angela Merkel era. But even she realized that China’s authoritarian regime, diplomatic bullying and human rights violations had to be confronted. Her successor Scholz is unlikely to change course.