Merkel’s legacy to play a role in future ties between China and Germany, EU
Published: Oct 14, 2021 10:03 PM
Chinese President Xi Jinping meets with visiting German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Beijing, capital of China, Sept. 6, 2019. File photo: Xinhua

Chinese President Xi Jinping meets with visiting German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Beijing, capital of China, Sept. 6, 2019. File photo: Xinhua

How will China-Germany and China-Europe relations evolve with the departure of German Chancellor Angela Merkel? The latest video talks between Chinese and German leaders may offer some clues. 

In a virtual meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Merkel on Wednesday, Xi hailed Merkel's contributions to promoting China-Germany and China-EU relations during her tenure and said that China will not forget old friends and will always keep the door open for Merkel.

Some believe that in post-Merkel era, China-Germany relations, which have remained robust and steady in the past few years, and even the China-EU relationship, which has  been relatively smooth compared with tumultuous China-US relations, will not be able to keep such momentum. There have been debates within Germany whether it should break away from Merkel's legacy. A number of hawks have called on the new German government to re-adjust Germany's China approach and play tough on China.

But these people may have underestimated the weight of Merkel's legacy. The "old friends" do not merely refer to Merkel, but the groups of people in Germany who share her stance. They are expected to play a role even after Merkel leaves.

It took some time for Merkel to realize why pragmatism serves bilateral ties. In the initial years after Merkel first assumed office, she met with the Dalai Lama and pledged to maintain an EU arms embargo on China. But following the 2008 global financial crisis, Merkel opted for closer economic cooperation with China, eyeing to advancing German interests through a geo-economic outlook, and a belief in engagement. The economics-centered approach greatly promoted strong trade and investment ties with Beijing. Now, China is the EU's biggest trading partner, and Germany is the largest EU exporter to China. 

A report released by the German Chamber of Commerce in China in February revealed that most German companies remain committed to the Chinese market despite the then economic decoupling call from the US, and the optimism was based on China's post pandemic recovery and the prospects of the China-EU investment treaty.  Merkel strongly supported the finalized negotiations with China on the treaty.

He Zhigao, a research fellow at the Institute of European Studies of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told the Global Times that German companies which are highly integrated with the Chinese market, especially those that have set up a branch in China, are expected to push the new German government to continue with the pragmatic path adopted by Merkel.

Cooperation between China and Germany and between China and Europe are likely to continue, which is determined by the interests of both sides. There is no fundamental conflict of interests between the two - China is dedicated to opening itself more, and the EU is not addicted to global hegemony as the US. China stresses seeking common ground while sidelining differences. Despite their divergences in the so-called values, they can still effectively prevent them from affecting the bigger picture. 

Pascal Boniface, founding director of the French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs, said in August in an online forum that the EU's pursuit of universal prosperity and safety necessitates cooperation between the EU and China. In late September, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell told Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in a video call that the EU and China must continue engaging on a number of issues despite differences. President Xi and European Council President Charles Michel will talk over the phone on Friday, the first time since last year. All these speak volumes of the future of China-EU ties.