The choice of Armin Laschet as leader of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union has been seen as a promising development by Beijing, observers say, raising hopes that he will continue to adopt a pragmatic approach to China if he succeeds her as chancellor.
While the choice of the minister-president of North Rhine-Westphalia does not guarantee that he will be the centre-right’s candidate for chancellor at the election later this year, diplomatic observers in China said Beijing saw it as a promising indicator that Germany, and the European Union, would remain in safe hands amid its intensifying rivalry with the United States.
The 59-year-old’s victory eased Beijing’s concerns that Germany, China’s biggest trading partner in Europe, would abandon Merkel’s friendly posture towards China.
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Merkel is a key advocate of engagement with China and is widely believed to be the key person behind an investment deal between European Union and China, a move that Beijing has hailed as the biggest diplomatic victory last year.
Laschet, a long-term Merkel ally, is “good news for China-Germany relations and China-Europe relations” as he is likely to follow Merkel’s pragmatic approach, said Ding Chun, director of the European Studies Centre at Fudan University in Shanghai.
Ding said Laschet is experienced in dealing with China, particularly with regard to industrial and economic matters, as the leader of North Rhine-Westphalia, the industrial heartland of Germany.
The region is home to the European headquarters of Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications giant now at the centre of the tech war between China and the US.
The city of Duisburg has been described as Germany’s “China City” as it is the first European stop for dozens of trains travelling along the China-Europe Express Railway, a major link in the Belt and Road Initiative.
“As a state governor, Laschet is clearly aware of the [economic] links with China,” Ding said. “He is very pragmatic, like Merkel, so if he becomes the chancellor, there are not likely to be dramatic changes in Germany’s foreign policy.”
With Joe Biden set to enter the White House next week, there have been growing calls in Europe and the US to rebuild the transatlantic alliance that has been hit by President Donald Trump’s America First Strategy.
But Ding said it remains to see how far this rapport will develop especially as the EU, amid growing scepticism about the US, has stressed the need for “strategic autonomy” to avoid being forced to choose a side in the great power rivalry between China and the US.
Wang Yiwei, a professor of international relations at Renmin University, said Laschet is likely to follow Merkel’s policy to avoid taking sides, a stance that Beijing will appreciate.
In a 2019 policy paper on EU-China economic relations from the influential Federation of German Industries, China is referred to as a “systemic competitor”, but Wang said Europeans generally take a slightly different view to the US.
“A competitor is not an enemy … Laschet may focus on issues such as state-owned enterprises and regulatory issues, which are negotiable and cooperative,” Wang said.
Shi Zhiqin, director of the China-EU relations programme at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Centre in Beijing, said close economic ties between China and Germany under Merkel paved the way for further cooperation, particularly on issues such as multilateralism, climate change and the fight against Covid-19.
“Laschet is seen as a loyal supporter of Merkel, and he is supported by Merkel in turn. So, if he becomes the German chancellor, he will largely continue the Merkel era’s domestic and foreign policies,” Shi said.
“Even if the new German government and the Biden administration are keen to repair the transatlantic alliance, a joint effort by the US and Europe Union to isolate and sanction China is unlikely because of China’s good cooperation with Germany and with Europe,” he added.
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