Europe decoupling from China ‘wouldn’t be right’, Angela Merkel says

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German Chancellor Angela Merkel has said that decoupling from China is not the right option for Europe despite tensions in the relationship.

The outgoing leader also told Reuters in an interview on Wednesday that Germany may have been naive in some areas of cooperation with China.

“Maybe initially we were rather too naive in our approach to some cooperation partnerships,” she said. “These days we look more closely, and rightly so.”

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But she said it was important for Germany and the European Union to continue to cooperate with China and to learn from one another.

“Total decoupling wouldn’t be right in my view, it would be damaging for us,” she said.

Merkel also said Germany was continuously in discussions with Beijing on intellectual property and patent protection, “both with regard to Chinese students in Germany and German enterprises operating in China”.

Some critics say Germany has become too reliant on China. Photo: Reuters
Some critics say Germany has become too reliant on China. Photo: Reuters

Merkel has sought to engage with China during her 16 years at the helm, and helped to nurture EU-China ties. She did not seek re-election in the September election and will step down once a new coalition government is formed.

China became Germany’s biggest trade partner in 2016 and its rapid economic expansion has fuelled German growth throughout Merkel’s tenure. But some critics say Germany is now too reliant on China, and becoming too soft on Beijing on awkward issues such as human rights violations.

Merkel’s government has said she always addressed human rights issues on her official visits to China – she has visited the country 12 times as chancellor – and has sought to diversify trade in Asia.

Her remarks come as relations between China and the EU are at a low point over a growing list of issues, including Hong Kong and Xinjiang. In May, the European Parliament halted ratification of an investment treaty with China after the two sides imposed tit-for-tat sanctions over Beijing’s alleged human rights abuses against Uygurs in the far western Xinjiang region.

Beijing has also been angered by some European nations seeking closer ties with self-ruled Taiwan, which it claims as its own territory. Brussels was preparing to announce a new strategic format for liaising with Taiwan on trade and economic issues this week, but it was postponed at the eleventh hour, sources told the South China Morning Post. It is expected to be revisited at a later date, according to a European Parliament source.

As Brussels tries to balance ties between Beijing and Taipei, China is trying to re-engage with Europe. Zhang Ming, China’s ambassador to the European Union, has said there are plans to hold an EU-China summit by the end of this year.

On climate issues, Merkel told Reuters that she had urged Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in a phone call to use cleaner technology if new coal-fired plants were being built in China.

“I have just spoken to the Chinese premier and discussed whether it would not be better, if his country is going to build coal-fired power plants, to at least build the latest generation,” she said.

Merkel’s party, the Christian Democratic Union, is headed for the opposition and likely to take a “hawkish turn on China” after she steps down, according to Noah Barkin, a Europe-China expert at Rhodium Group.

“The government that replaces her will also strike a different tone because it will include two parties, the Greens and Free Democrats, who support a harder line,” Barkin said.

“In her final months in office, Merkel has been doing all she can to ensure that her dialogue-first approach to China remains in place after her departure. But the political mood in Germany, as well as China’s own trajectory, suggest otherwise.”

Additional reporting by Jun Mai

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