Germany’s Strategic Gray Zone With China
As the United States confronts China more directly, Merkel is exploring deeper cooperation with Xi. Economic upheaval from the coronavirus could reinforce the temptation in Berlin to keep Beijing close.
Without the transatlantic relationship, former U.S. secretary of state Henry Kissinger once said, Europe would be at the mercy of China, a mere “appendage” of Eurasia. This bleak notion is weighing heavily on the minds of German officials as they contemplate their country’s place in a world of escalating U.S.-China competition. German Chancellor Angela Merkel referred to Kissinger’s observation in a January 2020 speech, telling an audience in Berlin that it had prompted her to take a “fresh look at the map.” “As Europeans,” she said, “we need to think very hard about how we position ourselves.”
Germany is in the midst of a wrenching reassessment of its relationship with China, a challenge made infinitely more difficult by its increasingly strained ties with the United States. Berlin shares many of Washington’s concerns about Beijing from the lack of reciprocity in its economic relationships with trading partners and the spread of debt and political influence through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to its growing use of surveillance technology and detention of over 1 million Muslims in Xinjiang. But after spearheading a pushback against the policies of Chinese President Xi Jinping, a campaign that culminated last spring when the EU declared China a “systemic rival,” Europe’s largest member state is wavering, keenly aware of its own vulnerabilities and wary, despite its concerns about China’s political and economic development, of following Washington down a path toward full-blown confrontation with Beijing.