Even before the German Chancellor’s plane took off, the timing of this trip to China had become a subject of debate and criticism both inside and outside Germany.

Olaf Scholz, accompanied by a trade delegation, is the first G7 leader to visit Beijing since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

He is also the first to meet President Xi Jinping since he tightened his grip on power and won an unprecedented third term.

Amid scrutiny in Berlin, Paris, Brussels and beyond, the Chancellor wrote op-eds in Politico and the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung defending his decision to leave.

“China remains an important business and trade partner for Germany and Europe – we don’t want to part with it. But what does China want?” he asks in Politico, while pledging to discuss “difficult topics” as well as the economic realities that force the government to reduce “at-risk addictions”.

China is Germany’s biggest trading partner, so from an economic perspective Friday’s meeting is understandable, but critics fear past mistakes could be repeated if the country becomes too dependent on Germany. another authoritarian power as it did before with Russia.

“Germany is still extremely dependent economically on China so that it can be silenced“, warns Wenzel Michalski, German director of Human Rights Watch.

Between January and June this year, German companies invested more than 10 billion euros in the country, according to a study by the German Economic Institute (IW).

“We must learn lessons”

This week’s figures from the Federal Statistical Office show most imports also came from China, up 5.4% from September, while exports the other way fell by 2%.

Having been hit hard during the war in Ukraine by an overreliance on Russian energy, many wish to avoid the same pitfalls with Beijing.

“We have to learn lessons, and learning lessons means we have to reduce one-sided dependencies as far as possible. This applies in particular to China,” German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier told public broadcaster ARD. during a recent visit to Kyiv.

The balance between isolation and hegemonic domination

Government sources have confirmed that while there is no policy to isolate China, hegemonic dominance in the region is incompatible with the world order envisioned by Germany.

In recent years, Berlin has become more hawkish in some of its actions, for example, sending a warship to the South China Sea in 2021 for the first time in nearly two decades, and sending fighter jets to Australia , Japan and South Korea earlier this year.

However, the Chancellor’s decision last week to push through a cabinet decision allowing Chinese firm Cosco to invest in a terminal at the Port of Hamburg despite opposition from its coalition partners is seen by some as a bad omen.

Opposition from six government departments led to a compromised deal with Cosco securing a 24.9% stake instead of 35%.

A new Chinese strategy

But the German Foreign Minister remains skeptical and has redoubled his demands for a “new Chinese strategy”.

Annalena Baerbock said she expects Olaf Scholz to raise issues of human rights, international law and a level playing field during his visit, according to Der Spiegel.

“Now it is crucial to get across in China the messages that we established together in the coalition agreement,” she said.

“As is well known, we made it clear in the coalition agreement that China is our partner on global issues, that we cannot decouple in a globalized world, but that China is also a competitor and increasingly no longer a systemic rival”.

The German government is considering issues such as tensions over Taiwan and Hong Kong and human rights concerns as it drafts its first China strategy due out next year.

“Decoupling is the wrong answer”

However, Scholz’s insistence that “decoupling is the wrong answer” has caused some to fear that he will not stand up to Xi Jinping.

Dolkun Isa, President of the World Uyghur Congress, said: “Despite criticism from international partners, Chancellor Olaf Scholz has decided to visit China with a business delegation.

“Just a week ago, the German secret service warned of a dependence on China.

“At a time when the Chinese government is committing international crimes against the Uyghurs, including genocide, the Chancellor’s trip not only sends the wrong message to the world, but also poses a major national security risk to Germany.”

“We will pay a much higher price for the foreseeable future if we don’t have principles now”

China has consistently denied allegations of abuse in the Xinjiang region – another reason the chancellor needs to send a clear message that human rights are paramount, campaigners say.

Mr Michalski said: “I’m not against the trip to China, but if it’s business as usual it should end now because we’ve experienced what it means when we look at Russia.

“We will pay a much higher price for the foreseeable future if we don’t have principles now.

“For a a quick fix to the economic misery we face would be too myopic.”

Business as usual is no longer an option

Official sources have confirmed that the purpose of the trip is not a continuation of previous approaches, with Mr Scholz writing: “It is precisely because ‘business as usual’ is no longer an option in these circumstances that I go to Beijing”.

We are told that the German government wants to see where cooperation is possible but to tackle areas such as war and peace where China plays a vital role.

Its close relationship with Russia means its influence could be critical in directing the war in Ukraine, and its sheer size makes it crucial on issues such as climate change, globalization and food security.

Success not guaranteed

Although success is not guaranteed, the feeling is that not trying at all would be fundamentally wrong.

Moreover, current economic pressures cannot be ignored by the Chancellor.

Although no corporate transactions are expected, soaring cost of living, soaring energy prices, high inflation and signals that the eurozone manufacturing economy is in recession overshadow this travel.

Relationships are crucial for both parties

Tim Rühlig, China expert at the German Council on Foreign Relations, said: “China-Germany relations are crucial for both sides, mainly for reasons of economic cooperation.

“The two countries have developed a relationship of trust with a strategic partnership.

“In recent years, relations have suffered, in particular due to China’s more aggressive international behavior and the changing geopolitical context.

“The solution is not a complete decoupling from China but a reduction in critical dependencies.

“It’s complex, time-consuming and expensive, but doable if there’s enough political will.”

With potential economic, political and moral implications, the Chancellor faces a tightrope that he must tread carefully, while under the watchful eyes of Chinese skeptics at home and abroad.

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