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What Does Beijing Want From Berlin?

FILE - People display Chinese flags in front of the chancellery which is reflected in the facade of a German parliament building prior to the arrival of Chinese Premier Li Keqiang for a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin, July 9, 2018.
FILE - People display Chinese flags in front of the chancellery which is reflected in the facade of a German parliament building prior to the arrival of Chinese Premier Li Keqiang for a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin, July 9, 2018.

China has announced that its head of state will hold a virtual “tone-setter” meeting next week with the heads of Germany and the European Union, providing an opportunity for Xi Jinping to deepen ties with Berlin and Brussels.

The meeting comes as Germany proposes to play a larger role in the Indo-Pacific region, a development that has prompted Chinese state media to warn that “China-Europe relations may never be the same.”

“The Himalayas and the Malacca Strait may seem a long way away,” German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas declared on September 2. “But our prosperity and our geopolitical influence in the coming decades will depend not least on how we work together with the countries of the Indo-Pacific region.

“We want to help shape that order,” Maas continued, “so that it is based on rules and international cooperation, not on the law of the strong.” He said Germany has intensified cooperation with “countries that share our democratic and liberal values.”

Global Times, an arm of Chinese state media, responded a day later with an article that questioned Europe’s capacity to wield influence in the region, and bristled at the notion of an Indo-Pacific strategy, which has been formalized in U.S. policy statements for two years. The United States changed the name of its former Pacific Command to Indo-Pacific Command in May 2018.

The concept of Indo-Pacific “is a not a simple political term, nor is it value-neutral,” the newspaper argued. Rather, it said, “this term implies one of the geopolitical focal points of the intensifying U.S.-China strategic rivalry.”

The article went on to say that Germany's latest policy guidelines “reveal its recognition of the U.S. strategic orientation toward the Asia-Pacific region, and even herald a U.S.-Germany convergence in the future of their attitudes and overall policy lines in handling issues in this region.”

The article also questioned Europe’s potential to influence strategic security in the region, saying the continent has not been regarded as a stakeholder within the region “for a long time.”

“Whether in military tensions in the South China Sea or in the territorial disputes of the East China Sea, East Asian countries such as China, Japan and South Korea are more concerned with the orientations of the U.S., but do not take Europe seriously,” it said.

Nevertheless, the Global Times article said, “Changes are emerging on the horizon, and China-Europe relations may never be the same.” It noted that Germany and other European countries appear to be contemplating moving investments out of China “to India, or some [other] Southeast Asian country,” posing a more urgent challenge to China.

Beijing’s concerns are not groundless, said Roderick Kefferpuetz, a political analyst and member of the Atlantic Council's U.S.-Germany Renewal Initiative, based in Baden-Württemberg, in southwest Germany.

The German government’s new guidelines mark the first time Berlin has acknowledged a need to diversify its investments, Kefferpuetz said. “That doesn’t seem like much, but for Germany, that’s a strategic change. Whether words will be followed by action will be seen.”

Kefferpuetz described the Global Times article as an attempt to accentuate differences among Germany, the EU and the U.S. while “belittl[ing] the EU.”

“By doing so, it misses the bigger picture,” he said.

“Several years back, China was expanding its influence in Europe — buying up companies, establishing a variety of political platforms and engaging with EU member states bilaterally and regionally. Now, the tables are turning,” Kefferpuetz said.

Europe, he said, is increasingly wary of Chinese influence, and “relationships are souring.”

Meanwhile, European powers are moving closer to China’s immediate neighborhood, Kefferpuetz said in a written interview with VOA. He cited Britain’s plan to send an aircraft carrier to patrol in the South China Sea next year, Germany’s just-announced Indo-Pacific strategy and a similar strategy that France published last year.

“By claiming that the EU is weak, and the transatlantic alliance is divided, the Global Times article just highlights how nervous China must be, given Europe’s push into the Indo-Pacific alongside the United States,” Kefferpuetz said.

Robert Spalding, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, has served in senior defense and diplomacy positions in the U.S. government, including senior director for strategy at the National Security Council under U.S. President Donald Trump.

He told VOA in a phone interview on Thursday that the Global Times article’s emphasis on the relative importance of the United States in the region contradicted previous Chinese assertions.

“They’ve been saying we’re not important, that the United States has ceased being relevant, hence the need for China to take over,” he said with a laugh.

He added that Beijing appeared to have lost its footing in managing the increasingly complex global relationships.

“They don’t know what they’re doing,” Spalding said.