Merkel backs Xi on need to avoid new cold war, but presses China on human rights, transparency

Jun Mai
·4-min read

German Chancellor Angela Merkel says she agrees with Chinese President Xi Jinping on the need to avoid a new cold war amid calls for a transatlantic alliance between US and Europe to counter China, but says she will continue to press Beijing on human rights and transparency.

“The Chinese president spoke yesterday, and he and I agree on that,” she told the World Economic Forum on Tuesday evening. “We see a need for multilateralism.”

Diplomatic observers said Merkel was expressing her vision of how the EU should handle relations with China amid suggestions the US and European Union should form an alliance to counter Beijing, which they both regard as a rival.

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The German leader was referring to Xi’s speech on Monday, when he called for setting aside ideological differences, avoiding a new cold war and promoting multiculturalism. The remarks were made as the Joe Biden administration in the US was busy trying to repair ties with allies troubled by the Trump presidency.

Biden has this week spoken to several European leaders, including Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron, as his top foreign policy officials seek a more coordinated approach with US allies on China strategy.

Readouts of the phone calls from the American side all mention China as one of the foreign policy priorities, along with Russia and the Middle East. But the issue of China was not mentioned in either of the statements from Europe.

“I’d very much wish to avoid the building of blocs,” Merkel said on Tuesday. “I don’t think it would do justice to many societies if we just say this is China and there is the United States and we are grouping among either one or the other. This is not my understanding of how things ought to be.”

Merkel, Macron and Xi were three of the speakers at this year’s World Economic Forum, which was held online. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi also addressed the meeting.

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Macron called for building “an economy more resilient to shocks and capable of integrating elements of resistance into production chains, an economy that takes into account this principle of humanity, in health matters as in social inequalities”.

John Kerry, Biden’s new climate envoy, and Anthony Fauci director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, were the only two speakers from the US government.

Merkel also pledged to keep pressing China on human rights and transparency.

Chinese President Xi Jinping speaks at the World Economic Forum, as its chairman Klaus Schwab looks on. Photo: EPA-EFE
Chinese President Xi Jinping speaks at the World Economic Forum, as its chairman Klaus Schwab looks on. Photo: EPA-EFE

“The president of China has committed to the charters of the United Nations and the dignity of the individual plays a part in the charters,” she said. “We have to discuss this issue no matter what social system we come from.”

Transparency was also key to multilateralism, to ensure trade took place in a rule-based system and in case parties “play out advantages against certain countries”, she said.

Merkel also cited China’s information release on Covid-19 as an example of lack of transparency, and defended the EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment, which was agreed last month after seven years of negotiations.

The bill had made EU-China ties more reciprocal and put China’s labour standards more in line with those of the International Labor Organization, despite mounting concerns in Europe about Beijing’s reported forced labour in Xinjiang, she said.

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Cui Hongjian, director of the department of European studies at the China Institute of International Studies, said Merkel’s remarks spoke of her vision of Europe as a coordinator between the US and China.

“It would serve Europe’s interests best if it maintains its strategic autonomy and plays the coordinator role between the US and China,” he said. “After the past four years, Europe has better realised the overlapping and contradictory interests with the US.”

Merkel’s direct reference to Xi’s speech was surprising, he said.

“I think it’s a shout to both the US and China, that multilateralism is the precondition for cooperation with either side,” he said.

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