Trade ties may bind but trust is the glue to a strong China-Germany relationship

Fairness and transparency are key to long-term cooperation between the two countries

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 07 June, 2017, 11:08pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 07 June, 2017, 11:08pm

Just last week during the Chinese premier’s visit to Europe, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Li Keqiang talked of the importance of the two countries’ newly defined relations.

Times have changed and so has the need for new alliances.

But while ties between China and Germany are traditionally based on good economic bonds, several other levels of cooperation have yet to be built.

The recently established people-to-people dialogue between China and Germany will help. Beijing brought this idea into play and it’s meant to help forge ties and liven up the “Belt and Road Initiative”.

But if partnerships are meant to last, trust has to be built and an open dialogue on bilateral interests established.

Both Germany and China share the value of diplomacy. Peace and stability is maintained through talks, trust and compromises. Unfortunately, the new inward-looking and nationalistic trends around the globe diminish curiosity, common understanding and the desire to reach out to other nations. Certainly, trade has brought the world closer together, but this isn’t necessary appealing to some any more.

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So how equipped are Germany and China to understand each other better?

Their exchanges over the previous decades have shown that Chinese and German attitudes are more similar than most would assume. Reliability, the importance of family and the mentality to work hard for your own success are core values of both nations. The impressive “mercantile gene” of the Chinese people is reminiscent of the brave entrepreneurship Germany has developed over centuries.

Chinese people appear to be more eager to make use of new technologies. The willingness to take personal risks is much higher than in other parts of the world.

In Europe, there won’t be any significant debate about the basis of wealth any time soon. Europe rarely discusses the socially just allocation of wealth. Hence, many European debates look backwards. Germany is also scarcely accepting of its new role as a leadership nation in Europe.

China, on the other hand, is acting as a supreme superpower in Asia and around the world. The Belt and Road Initiative, also known as the new Silk Road, symbolises this trend.

The graphic power of the term “Silk Road” – a notion invented by the 19th-century German geographer and scientist Ferdinand von Richthofen – is enormous, but it also represents China’s hunger for influence in the region.

Those concerned about China’s immense ambitions see the new Silk Road initiative as a one-way street in favour of Chinese interests only. The belt and road programme could become a great success, but communication has to become fair and transparent. Reciprocity for trade and investment is a must. Beijing is aware of the “communication problems” and tries to deal with them. The belt and road summit in May, as well as other dialogues, are important starting points.

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Tough rivalries on trade issues as well as concerns about the potential influence of China in Asia and around the world are inevitable. Building trust and taking up the challenge against the unhealthy virus of protectionism is necessary and needs clear action.

Reciprocity in trade and investment rules are the cornerstone of a reliable partnership between Germany and China. The sincere interest of officials and universities to promote international exchanges can also build trust. Independent think tanks should be established and able to publicly and freely communicate as a “critical friend” of China’s government on political, economic and social issues.

Transparent and welcoming visa regulations must also be put in place to allow everyone with sincere intentions to fully benefit from the proposed dialogue between China and Germany. Trust is hard to build and sustain. There is no better time to start than now.

Tim Wenniges is the director of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation in Shanghai