Germans vote in crucial poll for Merkel's successor
Whoever takes office, Germany will remain "pragmatic" on China ties despite short bumpy road: analysts
Published: Sep 26, 2021 09:43 PM Updated: Sep 26, 2021 11:47 PM
German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier votes at a polling station in Berlin during general elections on Sunday. Polls have already opened in Germany as voters choose a new parliament. The outcome will determine who gets to replace Angela Merkel after almost 16 years as chancellor. Photo: VCG

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier votes at a polling station in Berlin during general elections on Sunday. Polls have already opened in Germany as voters choose a new parliament. The outcome will determine who gets to replace Angela Merkel after almost 16 years as chancellor. Photo: VCG

In what has been dubbed by observers as a "most uncertain election," Germans are voting to decide who will succeed long-serving Chancellor Angela Merkel. Yet what is certain is that the next German leader will carry on Merkel's "pragmatic" policy toward China as it stands for the best interest of Europe's bellwether.

Polls opened at 8 am local time in Germany on Sunday, marking the final sprint in this important election, not only for Germany, but also for Europe and the world. A clear indication is expected to appear when voting comes to an end at 6 pm German time on Sunday - midnight of Beijing time on Sunday. 

The two camps in the current ruling coalition - the conservative CDU/CSU alliance and the center-left Social Democrats  - are almost neck and neck as voters prepare to choose. The latest opinion polls show the center-left Social Democrat Party (SPD) leading on about 25 percent, while Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) conservative alliance is lagging on around 22 percent, Deutsche Welle reported.

Chinese observers said that opinion polls in Germany are more reliable than other Western polls, yet the small margin between the two parties renders them to predict two outcomes: One is a coalition headed by the CDU and the Christian Social Union in Bavaria (CSU), led by Armin Laschet. The other is a coalition led by Olaf Scholz of the SPD. In either case, the coalition would be joined by the Greens and the pro-­business Free Democrats.

The China factor

Less than three days before the poll opened, candidates from seven major parties engaged in a final televised debate, where they touched on the relationship with China, one of Germany's most important trade partners.

Laschet said that he supports Merkel's stance on China and believes Germany must continue being China's "reliable friend." Scholz avoided talking about China, only stressing the need for a strong and independent Europe on the diplomatic front.

The fact that China failed to become the focus of this German election means the parties do not greatly diverge on foreign policy, including on China, therefore, it can be predicted that Germany will largely adhere to its traditional foreign policy toward China. 

"For one thing, the SPD's Scholz follows the line of former leader Gerhard Schröder, which stresses a pragmatic approach and a rather independent values system different from [that of] the US," Zhao Junjie, a research fellow at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences' Institute of European Studies, told the Global Times on Sunday. 

"Its values system traces back to the founding of the party in the 1860s, when it started out as a workers' party, one of the first Marxist-influenced parties in the world. It was once Europe's largest Marxist party."

Experts noted that if chosen as leader, Scholz will carry on Merkel's pragmatic policy and will not drag Germany into reckless attacks of other countries. The SPD leader has said very little on China.

The SPD's 15-page position paper on China from last year was replaced by a couple of paragraphs in this year's manifesto. 

The CDU's Armin Laschet has made his position on China clear. When the party launched its campaign in June, the Financial Times quoted Laschet as questioning the logic of criticizing China on human rights, saying Germany's relationship with China was guided by strong commercial ties.

"The China-Germany intergovernmental consultations will most likely be inherited by Scholz if he takes office," Zhao said. "And the mechanism will continue in the long run, as it will discuss matters of actual cooperation between the two sides which will not be dropped whoever takes office."

Yet experts predicted that the China-Germany relations will likely hit a short period of bumpy road after a new leader takes office, as the two small parties, the Greens and the Free Democrats, who are hawkish on China, are likely to join a coalition government. 

"Yet such turbulence will be short-lived, as Germany will eventually sway back to sensibility," Jiang Feng, a scholar with Shanghai International Studies University, told the Global Times on Sunday. 

Chinese analysts also pointed out that the China-Germany intergovernmental consultations - the long-standing mechanism between the Chinese and German governments - are a forum where senior members of the two governments can periodically discuss major policymaking issues or resolve discrepancies.


Stay neutral 

Prior to the German election, the chasm between Europe and the US deepened after the hasty US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan stunned its European allies. Most recently, France was outraged by a nuclear submarine deal among the US, Australia and UK, which caused the cancelation of a $66 billion submarine deal between Paris and Canberra.

"In the moment, everybody is choked to realize the Americans have changed gear and that Biden, although a nice and polite person compared to Trump, still pursues what they started under Obama, to forge an alliance to contain China… Germany is not interested in being drawn into any type of confrontation with China," an expert on Germany in China told the Global Times on condition of anonymity, noting that although Germany seeks military protection from the US, Berlin disagrees with Washington's hostile position against Beijing.

Speaking to the Financial Times in June, after US President Joe Biden's first official trip to Europe, Laschet suggested many in Europe were skeptical of Biden's hawkish attitude to China. 

"The question is - if we're talking about 'restraining' China, will that lead to a new conflict? Do we need a new adversary?" he said. "And there the European response was cautious, because, yes, China is a competitor and a systemic rival, it has a different model of society, but it's also a partner, particularly in things like fighting climate change."

Jiang pointed out that German politicians see very clearly that the US plans to counterbalance France and Russia with Germany, while at the same time making use of the Eastern European countries to check Germany. But Germany knows that its development is inseparable from China.

Take climate change. Germany will find it hard to push forward climate change-related issues without China's help, and its business and trade cannot thrive without the Chinese market, said Jiang, "especially after the pandemic, it is hard to decouple from Beijing."

"Germans are quite conservative in their political attitudes, they like constant governments, not too much change and disruption. And if they get the feeling that somebody wants to take them in the leech, they hide in privacy and pay back at the poll station," the above-mentioned anonymous expert said.