China-EU decoupling not an option but Beijing must step up on markets, human rights, virus: German envoy

Wendy Wu
·6-min read

A decoupling between China and Europe is not a policy option for Germany, but Beijing should ensure equal footing for market competition and address concerns about human rights, Germany’s ambassador to China, Clemens von Goetze, said.

In an interview with the South China Morning Post, von Goetze called on Beijing to engage in open dialogue with Europe about Hong Kong while deepening cooperation on global issues, including the coronavirus pandemic and climate change.

China reached out to European leaders after the United States election as hopes surged across the Atlantic for better US-Europe bilateral relations during the upcoming presidency of Atlanticist Joe Biden, which may in turn lead to more coordinated pressure on Beijing.

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“The EU and Germany have and do pursue policies both towards the US and China that are based on our own German and European interests and values,” said the ambassador, who has served as Berlin’s envoy in Beijing since September 2018.

He said the US was a key partner on economy, security and values for Germany, but relations with China also mattered.

“Also with China, we have developed close and good relations over the past 40 years and it is rather clear that for Germany and Europe a decoupling between China and Europe is not in our interest,” he said.

“Together with China, we want to work on common solutions for global challenges like fighting climate change and shaping global trade relations. That is our position and will continue in that way.”

After the US election, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and his German counterpart Heiko Maas published a rare joint opinion piece in The Washington Post that the EU and the US should consult each other to coordinate an approach to China on human rights, digital infrastructure and fair trade.

Xi calls for Germany, Europe to ‘remain open to Chinese companies’

Beijing – from President Xi Jinping to Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Beijing’s envoys in the bloc – has assured the European Union that it will still be a key partner and that China supports the EU to seek strategic autonomy.

Despite the close economic engagement, Beijing has faced difficult bilateral challenges with the European Union and its member states since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic.

China’s pandemic-control narrative and combative diplomacy fuelled a backlash in the bloc and conflicts have escalated over the national security law in Hong Kong and alleged human rights abuses in Xinjiang.

“Our bilateral relations are always embedded in our membership of the European Union. Germany acts also in solidarity and in close coordination with the European institutions and with our European partners,” von Goetze said.

In his own words: German ambassador on Hong Kong, economy and Indo-Pacific

Germany, which holds the presidency of the European Union for the second half of the year, has criticised China’s deteriorating human rights record during bilateral dialogues and at the United Nations Assembly.

He said the two countries differed in political systems and values and such differences should be discussed in “an open manner”.

“We have repeatedly addressed issues over Hong Kong and Xinjiang, together with our European and international partners,” he said.

“This is not only something that concerns our German-Chinese relations, but Europe as a whole.”

The national security legislation in Hong Kong, effective on June 30, has met a growing backlash in the West which deems it detrimental to autonomy of the city. The disqualification of opposition members of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council is “a further severe blow to the political pluralism and freedom of opinion” in the city.

“Our objective remains to keep the principle of ‘one country, two systems’ with autonomy for Hong Kong, with political pluralism and the freedom of opinion guaranteed, and that China keeps the obligations made in this respect. And we will continue to engage in that direction,” he said.

Von Goetze called for China to open market access and level the playing field for European companies, which are key issues in bilateral investment treaty talks.

Coronavirus: Germany questions need for extra test for China flights

Beijing and Brussels held the 34th round of the bilateral talks, and the next round is scheduled for the second week in December, although both sides remain committed to concluding the deal by the end of 2020.

“Whether the deal can be reached by the end of the year depends on the political will of both sides to find the necessary common ground,” he said, adding that a level playing field for European companies should be guaranteed.

“That is why we have to insist that the Chinese market is as open for European companies as the European market is for Chinese companies, that they are not disadvantaged in competition and that they have the same chance to participate in public tenders as Chinese companies. These are essential points and that’s exactly what we want to achieve in the negotiations.”

Germany released its Indo-Pacific guidelines in September, making it the second European country after France to issue an Indo-Pacific strategy, seeking a stronger presence and diversified engagement in the region.

German Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer said this month that China was a “system challenge” and Germany would send a frigate to patrol in the Indo-Pacific next year and German officers would be deployed on Australian avny units.

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The ambassador said Germany took a holistic approach to the region, including engaging in military cooperation with Indo-Pacific countries and continuing to hold regular excursions in the region.

“We have not yet worked out the exact route for the frigate and there will be navy ships coming on a regular basis and they will take different routes and operate on their own,” he said.

Von Goetze said he also saw “strong interest” in working jointly with China and the US to fight climate change.

“If the US would rejoin international efforts to fight climate change, that’s most welcome. But I don’t see that this contradicts the ongoing cooperation between Europe and China. We have to gain as much support worldwide as possible to fight climate change,” he said.

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