China policy divides Germany’s biggest party ahead of election

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Germany’s biggest party remains divided on how to tackle China ahead of September’s crunch election, with a manifesto unveiled by the Christian Democratic Union on Monday clashing with comments made by the party’s candidate to be the next chancellor, Armin Laschet.

The manifesto described China as posing “the greatest foreign and security policy challenge today”.

It called for a “resolute and powerful” response to Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative, adding that “China has the will and increasingly also the claim to power to shape and change the international order according to its own ideas – and is doing this with all its resources. China is influencing others by investing in technology and infrastructure”.

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It also called for Germany to play a guiding role in ensuring that “human rights are universal, indivisible and inalienable”, and to “oppose attempts by authoritarian states to weaken this consensus”.

Christian Democratic Union (CDU) leader Armin Laschet and Christian Social Union (CSU) leader Markus Söder give a press conference after a congress of the conservative CDU/CSU sister parties in Berlin, Germany on Monday. Photo: AFP
Christian Democratic Union (CDU) leader Armin Laschet and Christian Social Union (CSU) leader Markus Söder give a press conference after a congress of the conservative CDU/CSU sister parties in Berlin, Germany on Monday. Photo: AFP

In contrast, in an interview with the Financial Times published on the same day, Laschet questioned the logic of criticising China on human rights and suggested he would maintain the status quo, as Germany’s relationship with China is guided by strong commercial ties.

“I’m not sure that always speaking out, loudly and aggressively, in public about a country’s human rights situation really leads to improvements on the ground,” Laschet said, adding that Germany should not try to contain 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 told the FT. “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.”

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The CDU currently leads the German Green Party by eight points in the polls, three months out from a vote that will install a new chancellor for the first time in 16 years.

But it is unlikely to win a majority, with the most likely outcome being a coalition with the Greens, which set out a tough line on dealing with China in its own manifesto published last week.

“We demand from China an end to its blatant human rights violations, for example in Xinjiang and Tibet, and increasingly also in Hong Kong,” read the Green manifesto, which said that because of human rights concerns in Xinjiang, “the European supply chain law must deny access to the internal market for goods from forced labour”.

Significantly, both manifestos – as well as Laschet – have described China in language that echoes the European Union’s stance, by which Beijing is viewed as “a competitor, a cooperation partner, but also a systemic rival”.

Roland Freudenstein, policy director for the Martens Centre, the official think tank of the European People’s Party (EPP), the EU political grouping to which the CDU belongs, said the shift in the party’s language was “remarkable”, but pointed to a “disconnect” between party and candidate.

“This tone is new – they never said much about China before, and what they’re saying now is pretty much in tune with what the EPP group has been saying [in the European Parliament]. I think there is a shift in foreign policy outlook that goes beyond the party’s choice of chancellor candidate,” Freudenstein said.

The CDU has been dominated by Merkel for two decades, during which she has presided over booming trade ties with China and provided sponsorship for the agreement of an EU-China investment deal last December.

But there has been a push from within the party to take a tougher stance on China in the face of anxieties over China’s investment in critical infrastructure, Germany’s reliance on Chinese money, and swelling accusations of human rights abuses.

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Thorsten Benner, director of the Global Public Policy Institute in Berlin, said that the manifesto proves that “parts of the Christian Democrats are very sceptical of President Xi and, and his appetite for power globally”.

“The text of the party platform very much shows the imprint of Norbert Röttgen, the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the Bundestag and Angela Merkel’s nemesis on China policy in the CDU,” said Benner.

“There is very strong, language on confronting China, and working together with like-minded partners. That very much shows that parts of the CDU are there, but today also shows that the candidate Laschet is not exactly [there].

“I think he doesn’t necessarily believe in his party’s own programme on China, because what he said in that interview is very different.”

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