Scholz Invites Chinese Premier to Berlin as Tensions Flare

Olaf Scholz has invited Chinese Premier Li Qiang for talks in Berlin June 20 in the latest bid by the German chancellor to ease tensions between Europe and the government in Beijing.

(Bloomberg) — Olaf Scholz has invited Chinese Premier Li Qiang for talks in Berlin June 20 in the latest bid by the German chancellor to ease tensions between Europe and the government in Beijing. 

Scholz will aim to enlist China as a key partner on challenges including promoting global peace and tackling climate change while setting out red lines to any changes to the status quo in Taiwan, according to people familiar with the plans. 

The invitation from Scholz is meant to keep the door open for political dialog as relations between Europe and China deteriorate, said the people, who asked not to be identified because the meeting hasn’t been announced. The German chancellor will address thorny issues, such as restricted market access for European companies, human rights violations and the situation in Taiwan.

Germany is determined to reduce its footprint in China with Berlin still struggling with the consequences of its over-reliance on Russian energy. And while Germany views Beijing as an adversary in certain regards, Scholz is against decoupling from China, an important trade partner and a crucial destination for German exports.

“We are against decoupling, we are in favor of derisking,” Scholz said when asked about the European Union’s stance toward China following a meeting of the bloc’s leaders in Brussels last month.

“Companies all over the world are trying to draw the right conclusions from Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine: that they need to secure their supply chains, sales markets and direct investments so they can survive difficult moments,” he added. “That’s taking place now and I think will define the next decade or two.”

The meeting comes as Chinese President Xi Jinping’s effort to rebuff US attempts to portray China as a threat to the global order has faltered. China’s ambassador to France, Lu Shaye, caused an uproar last week when he questioned the independence of ex-Soviet states. 

The remarks effectively echoed Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s view of Ukraine and other countries that once formed the Soviet Union, undermining Xi’s efforts to portray China as a neutral party to help end the war that began in February 2022. 

German officials are well aware that the talks come at a delicate moment for Europe as the bloc is struggling to define a coherent approach on China. Germany and the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, both describe China as a partner, competitor and rival at the same time.

The talks in Berlin will be the seventh inter-governmental consultations between Germany and China. The previous meeting in this format was held virtually in April 2021 due to travel restrictions linked to the pandemic.

Domestic Discontent

Scholz’s diplomatic efforts in China are being closely coordinated with European allies and the US. Officials in Washington believe that they’re aligned with their counterparts in Berlin, and that Germany has come around to recognizing the threat China poses to the international order.

The White House was initially concerned about Scholz’s trip to Beijing last November, the people said, but US officials later described it as useful as the German leader ultimately got Xi to condemn Russia’s threats of using nuclear weapons in its war in Ukraine. This helped pave the way for a joint G-20 communique in which global leaders echoed that warning.

But Scholz’s decision to invite the Chinese premier hasn’t been universally accepted at home. 

Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock from the co-governing Greens has argued that Germany should reserve the special format of inter-governmental consultations only for like-minded countries that share democratic and liberal values.

Finance Minister Christian Lindner from the pro-business Free Democrats plans to meet his Chinese counterpart for talks in Beijing on May 10. A few days later, Baerbock will host her Chinese counterpart for talks in Berlin.

French Diplomacy

Emmanuel Macron triggered a controversy after his trip to China earlier this month. The French president’s argument that the EU should avoid being dragged into a dispute with China by the US sparked outrage in Washington and across much of the democratic world and confused European policy on the matter.  

China has pledged to bring Taiwan under its control, by force if necessary, while Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party asserts Taiwan is an independent nation.

In the meantime, Scholz has repeatedly warned China that it must not change Taiwan’s status by force. Baerbock warned of the “horror” of a potential Chinese move against Taiwan.

Scholz has a fine line to walk in his negotiations with the Chinese leadership. While Germany views China in certain regards as an adversary, Scholz thinks that China is simply too big to ignore or isolate. He sees a need to embrace Beijing as an ally in the fight against global warming, one of the people involved in the preparations for the talks said.

–With assistance from Jenny Leonard and Arne Delfs.

(Updates with context from the seventh paragraph)

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