Berlin: Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative bloc is studying a strategic partnership with South-East Asia that would shift the German government’s focus away from China and link economic ties and human rights more closely to the rest of the region, the authors of a report said.
The paper, presented recently by Eckart von Klaeden, chairman of the foreign affairs parliamentary working group of the Christian Democratic Union and the Christian Social Union, is unusual for Germany’s conservative bloc.
Previous foreign policy analyses by the conservative bloc had tended to focus on Europe, Russia and the transatlantic relationship, while Merkel’s predecessor, Gerhard Schröder, a Social Democrat, had focused almost exclusively on Russia and China.
“Previous policy under Schröder was too focused on China and its economy,” von Klaeden said in an interview Monday. “The idea with this paper is to diversify and look at how countries in the region— South Korea, Japan, India and Indonesia—can play a role in security and other big global issues.”
The paper comes at a critical juncture for Germany’s relations with China and the Asia-Pacific region. Trade between Germany and the region is booming and businesses are not eager for politicians to rock the boat.
Last year, German exports to China amounted to €27.5 billion (about Rs1.6 trillion), making Germany China’s biggest European trading partner. Direct German foreign investment amounted to €13.6 billion. Trade with the Asia-Pacific countries over the same period was worth €88.3 billion and direct foreign investment amounted to nearly €60 billion, according to the Federal Statistics Office of Germany.
But the business community is worried—China is still smarting after Merkel met the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibet, in Berlin in September, an encounter the business leaders fear could affect trade ties.
Beijing has already cancelled several high-profile events, including a major business forum in Frankfurt and a meeting with the finance minister, Peer Steinbrück, in Beijing next month. Ma Canrong, the Chinese ambassador to Berlin, has warned politicians, particularly the Social Democrats, that relations between Berlin and Beijing could deteriorate further.
Criticizing Beijing’s response, von Klaeden said: “The Chinese should recognize that they will not make our decisions for us.”
Merkel’s Social Democrat partners, including the new foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, have begun to question Merkel’s approach to Russia and China, and the paper examines the two-pronged strategy she is pursuing.
One part of the strategy is designed to promote German business interests but also European values based on human rights in the region. The other is about seeking some broader understanding with leaders in Asia, encouraging them to share global responsibilities for security and the environment. Von Klaeden believes that strong economic growth and stability cannot be sustained in the long term without democracy.
“That is one of our arguments,” he said. “There is more to relations than just economic ties.”
Von Klaeden explained that the conservative parliamentary group also wanted to focus on values, including human rights, press freedom and the rule of law. “These are our values,” he said. “It is not about imposing then. It is about promoting these universal values and putting them in the global context. Our idea was to try integrate our strategic, economic (concerns) and values.”
Analysts said the paper marked a clear break with the Schröder era. “The fact that a German conservative party takes on such a topic shows how Germany’s security interests are changing and how the party sees that the big challenges ahead are coming from Asia,” said Sebastian Bersick, a China expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin. “The idea to diversify relations is a very important one.”
Friedolin Strack, coordinator of the influential Asia-Pacific committee at the Federal Association of German Industry, said the new analysis was long overdue. “We are pleased that a leading German government party is now dealing with Asia,” Strack said. But he added that the timing of the paper, published soon after Merkel had met the Dalai Lama, “was an unhappy coincidence,” because it could give the impression that the new emphasis on the other countries in the region was a result of China’s annoyance with Merkel.
Jürgen Hambrecht, chairman of the giant German chemicals group BASF and also chairman of the Asia-Pacific committee, was more critical, saying there was insufficient attention paid to the specific cultural and political traditions of China and other countries in the region. Hambrecht has clashed previously with Merkel over her environmental policy and her policy towards Russia.