Expert : Germany could use EU presidency to shape EU-China relations

"Last year's strategy documents defined China as a 'strategic partner, economic competitor and systemic rival'. This status description must now be filled with content and a concrete agenda. What are our interests? Which communication channels work best? What role do human rights play?" said director of the Asia programme of the European Council of Foreign Relations, Dr Janka Oertel. [MSC]

In an interview with EURACTIV Germany, director of the Asia programme of the European Council of Foreign Relations, Dr Janka Oertel, described how Germany could play a pivotal role in changing the EU’s relations with China and might even force the exclusion of Huawei from the planned 5G expansion across the EU.

Dr Janka Oertel is the director of the Asia Programme at the European Council of Foreign Relations. Prior to that, she worked as Senior Fellow for the Asia Programme at the Berlin office of the German Marshall Fund. 

Ursula Von der Leyen’s Commission has now been in office for exactly 100 days. She wants her Commission to be a “geopolitical” one – have you seen any evidence of this?

The new Commission has set clear goals, but how much of this will ultimately be implemented remains to be seen. If you look at the reaction to the crisis on the Greek-Turkish border, there are still doubts as to what geopolitical capacity for action should look like exactly.

We have not yet seen any major steps in redefining relations with the US and China – but 100 days is too short for that. We should take the necessary time for this big question of how Europe is to be positioned in a changing world.

To what extent is the EU in a new, uncertain world?

On the one hand, our relationship with the US has changed as people are more distant and trust each other less. On the other hand, China’s role has also changed.

Beijing is confidently demanding a new position and changing the rules of the game. China is pushing for more independence and is in part deliberately decoupling itself from globalisation processes. The liberalisation of the Chinese market is currently not to be expected – quite the opposite.

This process has been going on for some years now, but what is new is the fact that we are no longer shaping our relationship with China against the background of a strong transatlantic partnership. And this puts pressure on Europe.

What does this mean in practice?

One example is the repeated threats of US sanctions on German cars. Both the US and China are important sales markets for Germany as an automobile nation. The US threats have unsettled the markets and politicians. This further increases the importance of the Chinese market.

Having to choose between the US and China remains a catastrophic idea, especially for Germany. Companies have to cope with this situation of uncertainty on a daily basis and make entrepreneurial decisions. But politicians try to avoid making decisions.

Steinmeier in Munich: US, China, Russia undermine global order, trust

Germany’s President Frank Walter Steinmeier accused Washington, Beijing and Moscow on Friday (14 February) of jeopardising the international order by stoking global mistrust and insecurity with a “great powers competition”.

But political decisions were nevertheless taken, both at EU level and by German parties, not to exclude Chinese telecom provider Huawei prima facie from the 5G rollout. In October, you wrote the article “Germany chose China over the West”…

No, that was just the title Foreign Policy gave to my article. That’s not what it says in the article. Only that there is a danger. The important thing to remember is: In all of Europe, we still don’t have a final decision on Huawei and ZTE.

So far, individual providers have made commitments and individual governments have created opportunities for exclusion. In Germany, the parties in the Bundestag have positioned themselves – for the most part very critically.

Europe is looking to Berlin and waiting for a concrete solution to be finally presented. At the moment we have to be patient until a proposal comes from the ministries. A transitional phase would be sensible and, above all, a coordinated European approach.

When the conservative CDU/CSU group published its position paper, most news portals – including ours – interpreted it as a decision in favour of Huawei. But on closer reading, as our follow-up article said, one noticed: not really, right?

Right, not really. The position paper did not mention the Chinese corporations by name but left the door open for the exclusion of so-called high-risk providers. For 3G and 4G, we use Huawei and ZTE technology in Europe – but what is new is that security is now assessed differently. You can no longer fall behind.

The discussion alone has already brought changes. Of course, security criteria were already in place, but it is only now that we in Europe are seriously debating trust in manufacturers and security along the supply chain.

The form of government and the legal situation in the country of origin of suppliers has become an important factor, which is a positive development.

And why is it suddenly a factor today?

It is clear that we are also having this debate because the US has forced us to do so. Without the massive pressure from Washington, we certainly would not have had the debate in this form. But the US also noticed that the pressure has only had limited success.

In the US, a more critical stance towards China is widely supported both by the Democrats and the Republicans. This will not change even after the presidential election. The perception of ‘threat’ has changed. The hope that China would open up and abide by rules has not been fulfilled. That is why Europe, too, is reassessing the relationship.

An important Chinese project in Europe was the “17+1” group of southeast European states plus China. When it was set up two years ago, it caused a stir – what is the current status?

The Chinese leadership likes this format because it looks like multilateralism, but actually it is just “multiple bilateralism”. So even smaller states get the attention they want. But the format is not very effective, the group has little in common.

In individual cases, participation may be worthwhile, but for many EU member states, its importance has declined significantly. Poland and the Czech Republic are interesting examples.

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Let’s turn to Germany. Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said at the Munich Security Conference in February that Germany would play a stronger role globally. What do you expect?

We have been talking about more responsibility in Germany since 2014, but not much has changed. Brexit gave Germany more weight in the EU. That is why Berlin is still looking for its own new role in Europe.

But with regard to China, this is not easy, given that Germany is China’s most important bilateral trading partner within the EU. Berlin has a special role to play.

It will now be important to use this potential not for a German but for a pan-European agenda. Especially during Germany’s EU Council presidency, which starts in July.

How could Germany shape EU-China relations during its presidency?

Beyond the high-level meetings and summits announced, Germany could use its presidency to create a framework for future EU-China relations. Last year’s strategy documents defined China as a “strategic partner, economic competitor and systemic rival”.

This status description must now be filled with content and a concrete agenda. What are our interests? Which communication channels work best? What role do human rights play?

The EU-China Summit in September will take place in the country that holds the EU Council presidency: Germany. What signal effect do you expect from this?

A “Leaders Meeting” of European heads of state and government with the Chinese president is planned for September in Leipzig. This is an interesting choice of location: A city in the heart of Europe, between East and West, which stands for peaceful resistance against the authoritarian rule because of the Monday demonstrations in GDR times. [a series of peaceful political protests against the communist government of the German Democratic Republic]

Berlin and Brussels would be well-advised to send out a strong signal from here for a Europe that is as united as possible. A Europe that not only stands for good economic relations with China but also for the rule of law, human rights and multilateral solutions to global problems.

But is there no temptation to present it as a German summit, in order to underline its own importance?

There are always temptations, but that does not mean that one should have to give in to them.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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