Germany and China have maintained diplomatic relations for almost 50 years. Soon Olaf Scholz will travel to the Middle Kingdom. Beijing would probably have preferred a visit from its predecessor.

Germany’s relationship with China is under scrutiny. The Middle Kingdom is our most important trading partner. But China is threatening its neighbor Taiwan, oppressing minorities and eating its way deeper and deeper into the German infrastructure.

Can a democracy do business with such states? And if so, under what conditions? This question will be asked when Chancellor Olaf Scholz (SPD) travels to Beijing on Thursday.

The head of government is already being bombarded with demands from all sides, especially after the debate about the Tollerort container terminal in the port of Hamburg. The Federal Association of Wholesalers, for example, advocates expanding free trade with more friendly countries.

And Martin Wansleben, General Manager of the German Chamber of Industry and Commerce (DIHK), said a few days ago: “China itself tends to foreclose, but wants to get involved more everywhere in the world, including here in Germany.” Scholz should advocate clear rules deploy.

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The tenor is clear. Scholz should leave the tracks of German foreign trade policy that have been rutted for decades, show his colors and set clear boundaries. He should act differently than his predecessors.

That means: Not as a door opener for the German economy like the former CSU boss Franz Josef Strauss or ex-Chancellor Angela Merkel (CDU). Their actions were linked to the hope that the Chinese dictatorship would change in the direction of the rule of law.

At least since President Xi Jinping’s recent demonstrations of power, this strategy has been considered a failure. Beijing is threatening war in Taiwan more and more openly. And the vision that Xi is spreading of China’s future is also questionable.

The head of government wants to transform his country into a modern, socialist power by 2049. A power that is able to both set and shape rules and is at the forefront of the world, both economically and technologically.

“Ultimately, China says, ‘We have our own system. And we want to change the global order and the corresponding rules of the game,'” explained Bernhard Bartsch from the Berlin think tank MERICS to “Deutsche Welle”.

This is a thorn in the side of the United States in particular, Germany’s most powerful ally. “Germany and Europe are in a situation where the question is being asked more and more often: which side are you on?” says Bartsch.

Our relationship with China and the USA is not “equidistant”. This means “we are much closer to the US than to China”. “Nevertheless, we don’t want to let the opportunities offered by the relationship with China go unused,” said the expert. In other words, benefit from trade with the Middle Kingdom.

Nevertheless, there are first signs that Berlin wants to adopt a tougher tone in its dealings with China. Federal Economics Minister Robert Habeck (Greens) recently announced a “more robust trade policy” and said that the “naivety” was over. Finance Minister Christian Lindner (FDP) also wants to take legal precautions to limit Chinese influence in Germany. Foreign trade law must be changed, he said at the weekend. The Ministry of Finance had “taken an initiative on the occasion of the Cosco case”.

Incidentally, Bartsch also described the China policy of the late Merkel years as naive. People have “adjusted much too slowly to the fact that we are dealing with a China that sees itself in a fundamental systemic conflict with the West and is politically playing off its economic power,” he told the German Press Agency in August.

When Merkel spoke about relations with China in 2017, it actually sounded quite pragmatic. She called it a “strategic partnership.” And it was the former chancellor who introduced joint German-Chinese government consultations.

In China, the “business-friendly” actions of the CDU politician were apparently well received. So good that Merkel is still the second most popular German there, three years after her last visit.

Anyone who takes a look at the Chinese state press even gets the impression that China wants the former chancellor – or at least her political style – back. The newspaper “Global Times” writes of “ideological snipers” who are supposed to lead Scholz down the wrong track.

Germany must not be fooled by narratives depicting China as “dangerous” or “threatening”. “Can Europe really be ‘safer’ and ‘more independent’ if it cuts ties with China?” asks the author.

It is true that the Middle Kingdom is the world’s largest market for almost everything from cars to sneakers. And it is also true that Germany is economically dependent on China. No German car would roll off the assembly line if China stopped delivering.

According to the German Economic Institute (IW), the country dominates as a supplier, especially for some critical raw materials. “These dependencies are becoming a political risk because a military invasion of Taiwan by China has become more likely,” according to the IW.

For China expert Bartsch, it was already clear in August that our approach would have to change fundamentally. Merkel’s policies have long benefited the German economy. But it “created the dependencies we’re facing now,” the expert said.

The Europeans – and thus also the Germans – are under pressure. The more China threatens war in Taiwan, the more we are forced to take a stand. Germany is part of the transatlantic alliance, so it is on the side of the USA.

As Die Zeit comments, “Germany and the extended West, including Japan and South Korea, must credibly convey to Beijing that, in the event of an invasion of the island, they are prepared to pay the painful price of draconian sanctions against China”.

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Will Scholz show a clear edge during his visit to Beijing, will he comply with the wishes of many business representatives and appear more robust? And draw clear boundaries in cooperation with China?

Not everyone is convinced of this. Some observers see the fact that Scholz approved Chinese participation in the container terminal in Tollerort as a sign that Germany’s China policy will continue.

“The chancellor’s power word on China in the matter of the port of Hamburg will probably be perceived in China as a deep bow to China’s economic power,” Manfred Weber, head of the EPP group in the EU Parliament, told the “Bild” newspaper.