In talks with Chinese Premier Li Qiang in Berlin on Tuesday, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz renewed calls for China to use its influence over Russia to help end the war in Ukraine.
However, Scholz also doubled down on economic cooperation with Beijing – even as European Union officials have focused on creating new stricter rules for trade and investment.
“I have again appealed to the Chinese government to exert even greater influence on Russia in this war,” Scholz told reporters after German-Chinese ministerial discussions, adding that Beijing has a “special responsibility” as a permanent member of the UN Security Council.
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China has not condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its close ties with Moscow have led to a cooling in ties with Europe. Scholz reiterated a plea for Li to not deliver weapons to Russia, and said they agreed to continue opposing the use of nuclear weapons.
“During my trip to Beijing in November, President Xi and I also made it clear together that there must be no threats and certainly no use of nuclear weapons. This continues to apply unchanged and I am grateful for this common, clear position,” Scholz said.
Li did not comment on Russia, and reporters were not granted questions at what was billed as a news event, after Berlin agreed to a request from the visitors from Beijing.
In an interview last week with the South China Morning Post in Brussels, Fu Cong, the Chinese ambassador to the European Union, said that Beijing’s position on the war was “very clear” and that “we do believe that the territorial integrity and sovereignty of all countries need to be respected”.
Asked whether China would back a restoration of Ukraine’s 1991 borders, which includes Crimea – illegally annexed by Russia since 2014 – Fu replied: “I don’t see why not.”
“There are historical issues that need to be resolved by the two sides. And that’s what we stand for, we do believe on issues such as Crimea, the two sides need to resolve them through peaceful negotiations,” he added.
Li’s visit to Berlin marked his first overseas trip since being elevated to premier in March, and he was given the red-carpet treatment – complete with military pageantry – upon arriving with his delegation of ministers for talks on Tuesday.
For observers, it was difficult not to compare the scene to events in Brussels, where the European Union was pitching a new strategy to tackle what it sees as the confluence of economic and national security risks.
The European Commission has recommended screening European hi-tech investments going into third countries, including China.
By contrast in Berlin, both sides spoke of the need for deeper cooperation and dialogue. Chinese apparatchiks and German industry bosses posed for the cameras as they signed deals on climate dialogue, engineering, labour and investment.
As EU competition chief Margrethe Vestager in Brussels was calling China a “systemic rival” that would be in the cross hairs of its economic security strategy, Li urged his German hosts to pursue closer ties, rather than divisions.
“But if it’s about using de-risking … to carry out decoupling or carry out discriminatory measures against certain countries … then it goes against market rules and principles of a level playing field,” said Li, until recently the Communist Party chief of Shanghai.
“China is willing to work with Germany to push China-Germany relations to a new level, better serve the development of the two countries, and inject more positive energy and stability into the world,” he said, according to an account published by state media CCTV.
Scholz, for his part, assured Li that Germany had “no interest in an economic decoupling from China,” and instead would pursue a level playing field for German companies in the country.
“Direct dialogue, face-to-face talks, a real exchange – all this is even more important than usual in these extraordinary times full of global challenges and crises,” the chancellor said.
The meeting came a week after Germany released its first-ever national security strategy which accused China of “trying in various ways to reshape the existing rules-based international order”.
In around a fortnight, it will unveil its long-delayed China strategy, which is expected to promote a more hard-headed approach to the world’s second largest economy.
Moritz Rudolf, an analyst at Yale University’s Paul Tsai China Centre, said the talks were “by far the most political ever” between the two governments.
“Usually, expanding economic and cultural cooperation dominated. This time, both sides focused on their respective global responsibilities and how to coordinate here – this is new,” Rudolf said.
The 10 agreements signed were modest compared to previous occasions, he said, and also included debt relief for developing countries and public health, so they “made sense”.
“The question is whether the Chinese side is willing and able to deliver on Li’s promises. They have a lot to lose in the bilateral relations with Germany, and they appear to acknowledge this,” Rudolf added.
Yet for some analysts, the choreography represented a continuation of the close bilateral ties of the Angela Merkel era.
“Scholz steered clear of the controversial themes. There was no mention of Taiwan, Xinjiang or Hong Kong. And he did not mention de-risking, although he did dismiss the idea of decoupling,” said Noah Barkin, an analyst of Sino-German relations at the Rhodium Group research house. “It was far softer than the remarks he made in Beijing back in November.
“It looked very much like a press conference Angela Merkel might have held years ago, when relations between Berlin and Beijing were in a better place.
“The only difference is that she always insisted that journalists be allowed to ask questions. Scholz bowed to Chinese demands on this.”
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