Merkel visit shows how partnership with Beijing can pay off

China and Germany may have their differences but a show of respect and willingness to cooperate enabled sensitive issues to be raised, including meetings with the wives of two jailed human rights lawyers

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 30 May, 2018, 4:02am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 30 May, 2018, 4:02am

China and Germany have their differences. Yet Chancellor Angela Merkel’s recent visit, her 11th as German leader, showed how through an approach of partnership rather than containment, sensitive issues can still be raised.

A relationship of mutual respect has been built that was evident during meetings with President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang.

Cooperation and coordination on a range of areas has ensured a healthy relationship that will be of benefit to both sides and, at a time of American unilateralism, the world.

Xi and Merkel have strong personal ties. China is Germany’s biggest trading partner and Beijing needs Berlin’s help in gaining better access to European markets and with the “Belt and Road Initiative”.

US President Donald Trump’s increasingly difficult relations with both as a result of trade disputes and his disregard for multilateral deals is pushing them ever closer. Understandably, then, free trade, the Group of 20 nations and the Iran nuclear deal were among issues discussed during Merkel’s two-day trip.

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But while there have been concerns in Germany about access of companies to the Chinese market and protection of intellectual property, the German leader opted for a conciliatory approach. She said that both wanted a rules based, fair, free-trade system and pledged to work with Beijing to “strengthen multilateralism”.

That did not preclude criticism; in Shenzhen, Merkel called for better data protection assurances for German companies, reference to the cybersecurity law that requires foreign firms to store information on servers in China. She praised Xi for lower tariffs on car imports, but urged an easing of limits on foreign investment.

In an unusual move for Beijing, Merkel was permitted while in the capital to meet the wives of jailed human rights lawyers Wang Quanzhang and Yu Wensheng, proving the weight Germany has with China when it comes to raising such issues.

But wishes among activists that her visit would enable poet Liu Xia, the widow of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, to be released from house arrest and leave the country, did not materialise – although hopefully it may yet happen.

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The two sides agreed to work together on auto technology, including driverless vehicles. Merkel saw first-hand the technological and scientific dynamism taking place in Shenzhen and received a lesson in how China has managed to overtake Germany in some areas of innovation such as artificial intelligence.

It can catch up through the cooperation of companies, but the same approach applies to other areas of common interest, such as global governance and multilateralism. That way, they can further build the understanding and trust necessary to bridge differences.