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In-depth Discussion: A Look at the Sino-German Relations

In-depth Discussion: A Look at the Sino-German Relations

Author:Def author From:Site author Update:2019-08-23 13:48:43

November 6, 2012

Jiang Shixue: Professor and Deputy Director, Institute of European Studies (IES), Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS);  

Li Lezeng: Professor, the Institute of Germany Studies, Tongji University;

Zheng Chunrong: Professor and Deputy Director, Institute of EU Studies, Tongji University;

Wu Huiping: Professor, Institute of EU Studies, Tongji University;

Yang Xiepu: Associate Professor, Institute of European Studies, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences;

Hu Kun:  Assistant Professor, Institute of European Studies, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences;

Zhu Miaomiao: Assistant Professor, Institute of EU Studies, Tongji University;

Zhu Yufang: Assistant Professor, the Institute of Germany Studies, Tongji University.


Jiang Shixue: China established diplomatic relations with the then Federal Republic of Germany on 11 October, 1972.  Over the past 40 years Sino-German relations has witnessed remarkable progress, but as it is universally acknowledged that there is nothing best, only better in terms of the bilateral relations. What are the problems in your eyes that deserve the attention of both sides? Or rather, what are the problems that might obstruct the improvement of bilateral relations between China and Germany? 

Li Lezeng: Undoubtedly, there do exist many problems with regard to Sino-German relations, and some of them are even impacted by some multi-lateral and global issues, which I can not afford to dwell upon one by one here. The key point is that each level of force, whether it is from the official, media or the non-governmental organizations, should help create a favorable environment to deepen the mutual understanding between each other, which, I think, is the best approach to solve the problems and promote the smooth development of our bilateral relations.

Zheng Chunrong: During the just concluded second round of government consultations between China and Germany, both sides are committed to promoting the level of the strategic partnership oriented towards the future. Conceivably, bilateral relationship will be further “upgraded” if it develops smoothly. But there are still many factors that may hinder the smooth development of such relations.

First of all, there is still much room to be improved with regard to the political mutual trust between the two countries.  In his speech delivered at Tongji University not long ago, Dr. Eberhard Sandschneide, Director of the Research Institute for German Council on Foreign Relations said that in his opinion the lack of mutual trust between the two sides constitutes the major potential impediment to the development of Sino-German relations.

Secondly, there is marked disequilibrium and asymmetry in terms of mutual understanding between the two peoples. Relatively speaking, the Chinese people have a better understanding of Germany than the other way round, whereas in Germany, the media reports of China are mostly negative, which is certainly not conducive to consolidating the cultural foundation for the development of bilateral relationship.

These two inhibiting factors can be explained from the differences in ideologies and systems between the two countries. What I’d like to emphasize as the last point is that with the full-scale development of bilateral relations and cooperation in the future there is inevitably keen competition between the two countries, such as the issues involving competition and cooperation in photovoltaic industry.  To deal with these issues properly requires the political wisdom of the decision-makers of both nations.

Wu Huiping: It sounds a bit too optimistic. As two major global economies and important political forces in their respective regions, there is a firm basis for the development of a strategic cooperative relationship between China and Germany, under which Germany clearly enjoys a unique advantage over other European countries. But there are also many insurmountable factors and issues that may potentially pose a challenge to the continued development of bilateral relations as is clearly manifested in the differences with regard to their political systems, ideologies, cultural backgrounds, therefore the full development of Sino-German relations can never be expected to surpass the cooperative relationship between the U.S. and Germany, which enjoys a solid foundation despite a historic low ebb in their bilateral relations.

So the best way to develop our relationship with Germany is to expand the basis for the promotion of mutual interests and enhancing the degree of interdependence by taking full advantage of the current international political transformations. From my point of view, the development of such a relationship should proceed from the following aspects:

We should seek an all-round cooperation in promoting the reform of the U.N. and the establishment of international rules and regulations with regard to world economy and finance, climate changes, anti-terrorism in an effort to set up a long-term mechanism for dialogue.

We should seek to promote the image of China in the world through public diplomacy in Germany with an aim to further strengthening cultural and educational exchanges.

Yang Xiepu: My view is that the different historical and cultural backgrounds between China and Germany will inevitably give rise to great divergences in their ideologies, concepts, social systems and phases of development, and this will undoubtedly result in different judgments and a misunderstanding of the same issues and, ultimately, a conflict of interests in the bilateral trade relations within the context of globalization. Some of the issues can be speedily addressed and resolved through timely consultations and communications; but other issues, especially the so-called Tibetan issue, human rights and the Taiwan issue, are likely to pose serious challenges to the smooth development of Sino-German relationship.

As we all know, the Tibetan issue has always been a sensitive one that has harmed the relationship between China and Germany in the bilateral exchanges. In March 1990, German Bundestag passed a resolution on the issue of Tibet, constituting a downright interference in China’s internal affairs. On 4 October, 1990 German President Richard von Weizsäcker met with Dalai Lama; in 1996 an international seminar on the so-called “Tibetan independence” was sponsored by the Norman Foundation, which has brought the Sino-German relations to a historical low point and inflicted long-term damage to the bilateral relations. In September 2007, Germany Chancellor Angela Merkel’s meeting with Dalai Lama once again generated serious side effects on Sino-German relations.

Another problem is the human rights issue which would be invariably brought up during her visits to China by German Chancellor Merkel. After the 1989 political turmoil German Bundestag passed a human rights resolution and started to impose comprehensive sanctions on China. It lifted its economic sanctions against China in 1992, but the human rights issue has never been resolved and has since become an unavoidable problem between the two countries.

Though Germany has never established official relations with Taiwan, anti-China activities aiming at instigating pro-Taiwanese independence sentiment by a few high-level German officials have also posed a serious challenge to the healthy development of Sino-German prelateship.

Zhu Yufang: In my opinion, the Sino-German relationship can be no more aptly captured than the Chinese proverb: Haziness brings beauty and distance makes the heart grow fonder.  A look at the history shows that favorable impression of each other is usually brought about by a chance encounter, thus shortening the distance between the two. But China and Germany are two diametrically different countries with different historical backgrounds. Therefore, awareness of the divergence of the different cultural backgrounds and systems can help lay the groundwork for their mutual appreciation and harmonious coexistence.

What is also noteworthy is that both the Germans and Chinese are by nature intensely conservative in terms of their thinking. If both sides manage to keep each other at a distance in appreciating their divergence, the difference between them will become indistinct, which can in turn better promote mutual appreciation. While intimate exchanges may breed and magnify the sense of mutual exclusion, the cultural instincts may on the contrary compel each other to retreat into their own shelters for self-defense. Opposite sexes may beget love and friendship though they do not have to get married.

Hu Kun: I think the ideological bias is also likely to hinder the promotion of Sino-German relationship to a higher level.

Zhu Miaomiao: There are also two points worthy of our attention. First, the so-called symbolic politics under the influence of ideologies is an important factor that has significantly affected the bilateral relations between China and Germany. A case in point is the awarding the peace prize at the Frankfurt book fair attended by German President Gaoke to Liao Yiwu, a Chinese dissident in exile in Germany. Other issues involving Tibet, human rights and arms embargo against China also fall under this category.

Second, the reason why China has not been accorded with due attention and respect is a result of Germany’s heavy reliance on the U.S. in military and security affairs. When confronted with serious crisis or conflicts, Germany would most likely take sides with the U.S. Take the territorial dispute between China and Japan over Diaoyu Island for example, it is hard to expect Germany would side with China if there is an escalation of the conflicts.

Jiang Shixue: You must have read an article by Hans Kundnani and Jonas Parello-Plesner, in which they consider the relationship between China and Germany as a sort of “special relationship”. In fact most of the bilateral relations are special in nature but the point highlighted by the two authors is that Sino-German relationship is so close that Berlin might take the place of Brussels in managing Sino-EU relations, especially in EU’s policy-making toward China. Do you agree with that opinion? Why or Why not?

Li Lezeng: There is indeed such a kind of prevailing viewpoint among some of the German scholars, who tend to regard EU’s policy toward China as being heavily impacted by Germany. My opinion is that such a viewpoint does not necessarily mean that Germany is bent on replacing Brussels in the future. First of all, making unified and coherent foreign policy has always been blamed to be the weak point in EU’s policy-making mechanism; therefore EU's policy toward China can be more accurately characterized as a bilateral relationship between individual EU member country with China. Secondly, it is impossible for Germany (whose influence is also limited) to manage all the issues involving the interests of the EU, such as the issues of recognizing the market economy status of China and lifting the arms embargo against China. In spite of that, the smooth development of bilateral relationship between China and Germany do have a positive impact upon EU’s policy toward China.

Zheng Chunrong: Speaking of the “special relationship” between China and Germany, my impression is that it was first put forward by the two aforementioned German scholars and was later used as such by the inner circles of German government officials during the second round of government consultation with a delegation led by German Chancellor Merkel at the end of August in Beijing. While some Chinese scholars also hailed such kind of “special relationship”, the Sino-German relationship is in principle founded upon pragmatic cooperative economic relationship, which is quite different from the conventional western special relationship based on their shared values and ideologies.

With the gradual elevation of the status of Germany in the EU after the outbreak of European debt crisis three years ago, China has also begun to increasingly regard Germany as the bellwether in the EU and attach great importance to the sound development of bilateral relationship. But what upsets Germany most is that a close relationship with China might also give rise to jealousy and indignations of other European countries, which can not speak with one single voice with regard to the policies towards China, especially in the context of European debt crisis.

Constrained by the complexities and different interests of each member country in pursuing its relationship with China, Germany has but to take a proactive attitude toward developing a smooth tie with China. In spite of that, I think Berlin will not be able to replace Brussels since other European member states are still reluctant to assent to the leadership of Germany, whose “go-alone” policy toward China has already been lambasted by other European countries. So it is difficult for Germany to “call the tune” in its relationship with China without being distracted or even obstructed by other member countries in the EU.

Wu Huiping: I can’t go along with your viewpoints. It is true that Germany wants to play a leadership role in EU’s relationship with China so as to highlight its own importance in such a relationship. But, given the EU’s unique characteristics since the birth of the Maastricht Treaty, each member is endowed with the power of veto when it comes to the formulation of policy toward China.  

In a recent visit to a German research institute, I was impressed by an Austrian scholar who illustrated the Sino-EU relationship with the case of China’s textile export to Europe. He pointed out that as a result of competing demands in interest in the EU, countries in the labor-intensive Southern Europe would consider China’s textile export as a potential menace and so implemented anti-dumping to protect their markets, while the countries in the Northern Europe, which have stopped producing textiles tend to welcome the low-price yet high-quality products from China.
The economic community in Germany also takes favorable views of Chinese textile exports, which is primarily motivated by a need to export more textile machineries to China,therefore it is reasonable for Germany to speak only for its own interest rather than on behalf of the EU as a whole.

Yang Xiepu: It is true that Germany has always played a pivotal role in the decision-making process of the EU, it does not follow, however, that Berlin will replace Brussels in EU’s policy toward China, since the political decision-making mechanism of the EU is always endowed with its own democratic legitimacy. Germany as a key member of the EU can help push forward the Sino-EU relations but the development of such a relationship can by no means be shaped by a single country of the EU since the European policy toward China has to be made in light of the different policy areas and decision-making procedures.

Hu Kun: I think the so-called “special relationship” is only relative to the “normal relationship”, with the later being defined as one based on shared values; but the prevailing viewpoint shared by the German government and the populace alike tends to consider such a relationship based more on economic and trade relations than on identical values and systems.

As a matter of fact, it is very difficult for both sides not to upgrade their bilateral relationship. Besides, their heavy degree of mutual-dependence and the absence of bilateral geopolitical conflicts can further reinforce their intention to promote their ties.

Zhu Miaomiao: I do not see eye to eye with such a viewpoint. First of all, foreign policy and security issues of the EU can not be simply interpreted as “unified” or “integrated”, since each member country has its own policy towards foreign countries. Secondly, it is not easy to give a clear-cut definition of Germany’s role and status in the EU. Though Germany boasts a “hegemonic” status in economy it is nevertheless reluctant to be a leader or pace-setter in the EU, and for that matter can play a critical role in the Sino-EU relations.

Jiang Shixue: I recently attended a forum in Cologne on China’s financial issues. I had the impression that the Germans were not against the internationalization of RMB. How do you think about Germany’s position towards the issue of the internationalization of RMB? Are the Germans in favor of RMB joining hands with the euro to undermine the hegemonic dominance of U.S. dollars? And, how do the Germans and their media view China’s increasing investment in Germany?

Li Lezeng: Most of the Germans I know are of the opinion that it is still premature for RMB to be an international currency. Besides, the aftermath of the world financial crisis has greatly increased the uncertainty of its internationalization.

Actually, the Germans and their media have always had an ambivalent attitude toward China’s investment in Germany, because they tend to believe that, on the one hand, Chinese investment can promote Germany’s economy and employment but, on other hand, it would lead to such apprehensions that China’s presence in its key economic and industrial sectors might undercut Germany’s competitive edge in high-tech areas. But on the whole, Germany’s attitude toward China’s investment is positive.

Zheng Chunrong: According to a recent survey China has a growing interest in investing in Germany, about which the federal government of Germany is basically inclined to maintain a favorable attitude. They think there is still great potential for development, whereas the German public tends to view China’s investment in Germany with anxieties and trepidations, which is a result of negative propaganda campaign by the German mass media.

Wu Huiping: There is a chronic imbalance in direct investment between China and Germany, so the German government has always expected China to increase its investment in Germany. By 2011 China has already become the biggest investor in Germany. Investment from China has been extensively covered by German media, which have also noticed that the focus of China’s direct investment in Germany has switched to the purchase of brand names and proprietary technology.

Despite Merkel’s intensive lobbying efforts to persuade China to buy more Spanish and Italian bonds, China seems to be more interested in buying European enterprises with a moderately lower price along with their technologies.
Though the German economic communities are generally in favor of China’s direct investment in less developed areas or sectors (such as solar energy), they are still concerned about the possibility of technology drain to China. For instance, Q Cell, one of the largest photovoltaic industries specializing in the production of solar energy equipment, went bankrupt in the rivalry with its Chinese counterpart.

The German public hope to be better informed about the projects and the investors, the possible impact upon the local communities, the job vacancies and the issues of environmental protection etc. The German media have nevertheless sounded a warning that the economies of Germany and other countries would be encumbered if China’s domestic economy slides into recession.

Yang Xiepu: There is a growing appeal for strengthening the position of RMB among some key government officials in Germany. Peer Steinbrueck, Finance Minister of Germany, indicated in 2009 that despite the indisputable status of U.S. dollar as the major reserve currency in the world the power of RMB and euro will be bolstered. As a prospective challenger to Markel in 2013 election, Peer Steinbrueck, who will represent the Social Democratic Party, is likely to deliver his promise to strengthen the status of RMB and euro once he is elected chancellor of Germany in the upcoming election.

Hu Kun: It's really hard to say if the Germans are really in favor of the internationalization of RMB. But the prerequisite to counteract the dominance of U.S. dollar is to speed up the internationalization of RMB, whose process hinges more on China’s sustainable economic development than on the impressions of a foreign country.

Zhu Miaomiao: I am not an expert in economics, though. My impression is that the Germans are not quite interested in RMB joining hands with the euro to resist the hegemony of the U.S. dollar. The driving force of the German economy lies in its tremendous industrial production capacity, which has enabled it to reap huge profits either in euro or dollar zones. But there is still no dissenting voice against the internationalization of RMB yet.

Jiang Shixue: One of the prized experiences in the foreign relations of China is the establishment of close personal relationship between Chinese leaders with their counterparts, the so-called “brotherhood relationship” in Chinese, which can pave the way for smooth and efficient solution to the problems in the bilateral relations. As Premier Wen Jiabao has met with Merkel many times, it is generally presumed that they have developed cordial friendship with each other. How do you view the impact of German election upon Sino-German relationship next year?

Li Lezeng: One of the key points accounting for the establishment of good relationship between Germany and China is a high degree of mutual trust, developed through the continual fostering of government leaders on both sides. The launch of the government-to-government consultation mechanism in 2011 represents a new height of mutual trust between the two countries. Though it is accomplished during the tenure of Premier Wen Jiabao and Prime Minster Merkel, such an achievement is generally considered to be indispensible to the strenuous efforts of their predecessors. It is too early to predict the outcome the German election for the next year, though one point can be affirmed for sure that Sino-German relations will maintain the momentum of steady development no matter which party (the Social Democratic or the Union Party) holds the power.

Zheng Chunrong: The excellent rapport between the prime ministers of Germany and China, often cited as a strong argument in favor of the “special relationship” of the two countries, is also hailed as a necessity and outcome of the pragmatic cooperative relationship that both countries seek to achieve. Despite the fact that political mutual trust between China and Germany still needs to be further strengthened as I have already mentioned above, Germany’s foreign policy toward China, albeit its ups and downs, has always been consistent and sound.

The warming up of the bilateral relations comes more out of our shared interests and economic interdependence, therefore the Sino-German relationship will not likely veer from the overall pattern of congenial development even if there is government change in the 2013 election. From the recent public opinion poll we can see Merkel still stands a chance for a successful reelection next year. So in this sense the future development of Sino-German relationship will be determined to a large extent by the bilateral economic cooperation in the future.

Wu Huiping: It is true that the personal rapport between government leaders can help disseminate political mutual trust to the public, like the relationship between Helmut Kohl and Francois Mitterrand, Schroeder and Putin, Merkel and Sarkozy, which can definitely help promote dialogue and consensus-building in tackling thorny problems. Though there are still some uncertainties about the general election in Germany next year, I think Merkel’s re-election bid is out of question. What puzzles us most is which party will be likely to form a coalition government with her. Even if the worst happens that Social Democratic Party takes power, there will be no drastic changes in its foreign policy and Germany will maintain consistency in its relations with China. In this perspective, the election results next year will not generate serious consequences upon Sino-German relationship.

Yang Xiepu: From what we have seen so far, there is still no formidable challenger to Merkel, whose bid for a successful reelection is almost certain apart from a serous setback in her domestic and foreign policy. Once reelected Merkel’s China’s policy is unlikely to change no matter how she will form the cabinet. But should Merkel lose the election the Sino-German relationship is unlikely to retrograde, for the tide to push forward the bilateral relationship has not fundamentally changed.

Zhu Yufang: Establishment of the so-called “brotherhood relationship” is by no means a reliable way to solve all the differences and disputes in any bilateral ties. What we are trying to do is to address the particular issues in a specific manner through the built-in system or mechanism of the two countries so as to maintain a harmonious environment. It seems that the Germans would like to establish a set of unified codes of conduct by the force of external system to ensure the predictability of each other’s conduct so as to construct a more secure environment.

Hu Kun: Given Merkel’s strong political convictions and beliefs, I think her trips to China are mainly for “business” instead of “making friends” in China, over which we should never show too much optimism, which might lead to our misjudgment.

Zhu Miaomiao: According to the recent public opinion poll conducted on October 4 and 26 by German TV Channel I, the Christian Democratic Union headed by Merkel and finance minister Wolfgang Schaeuble are still enjoying a high approval rating, while the support rate for the Social Democratic Party remained constant or even registered a slight drop, therefore it is too early to predict the outcome the general election.  Even if there is a power transition after the election, I am sure there will be no drastic changes with regard to the economic relationship between China and Germany though the pace for governmental consultation mechanism might be affected and slowed down.

Jiang Shixue: Do you agree that Sino-German relations can be regarded as a model for North-South relations?

Li Lezeng: Sino-German relationship is admittedly one of the best among the countries with different social systems, but it is difficult to affirm whether such a relationship is of exemplary significance to other countries, since each nation with its own peculiar characteristics will define its relationship with China in terms of its own historical background, geopolitical circumstances and the degree of interdependence with China.

Wu Huiping: It is difficult to find a proper model for North-South relations, and China in the eyes of Germany is no longer a developing country but a country undergoing transition. Sino-German relationship can be seen as a successful case of building an all-round cooperative partnership between countries with different political and economic systems and different cultural backgrounds. There is indeed a discernible gap among the member countries of the EU, such as the inherent disparities between Germany and Greece, which can also be regarded as a kind of “North-South relations”.

Yang Xiepu: Personally, I think Sino-German relations can set a fine model for the development of bilateral relationship between China and other European countries. It is only special as is contrasted with other European countries. What counts most in China’s foreign policy is the Sino-U.S. relations. And the key to understand the North-South relations is an attempt to remove and eliminate the control and exploitation of the underdeveloped countries by the developed ones. As is known to all, North-South relationship is characterized with confrontations and struggles on the one hand and mutual interdependence and cooperation on the other, which does not apply to the current special relationship between China and Germany, since both countries are committed to the win-win cooperation while brushing aside the frictions.

Zhu Miaomiao: I don’t think so. China can never be put on a par with that of other developing countries like those in Africa, Asia or Latin America. In another word, China is not a typical developing country any more, so it is really difficult to define the relationship between China and Germany as a model of the North-South relations.

Jiang Shixue: Thank you very much for your active participation and let’s hope that China-Germany relations will be better and better in the coming years.

(Contact Jiang Shixue:jiangsx@cass.org.cn

(Contact Li Lezeng:lezengl@yahoo.com.cn

(Contact Zheng Chunrong:chunrong_zheng@hotmail.com

(Contact Wu Huiping:wuhuiping@tongji.edu.cn

(Contact Yang Xiepu:yangxp@cass.org.cn

(Contact Hu Kun:hukun@cass.org.cn

(Contact Zhu Miaomiao:miaomiaozhu@tongji.edu.cn

(Contact Zhu Yufang:ezhuyufang@hotmail.com

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