Klingbeil in Beijing: The China dilemma of the SPD

Berlin Despite major differences, the exchange between China and Germany is currently more intense than it has been for a long time. One politician after another travels to the People’s Republic. On Monday it is SPD leader Lars Klingbeil’s turn, two weeks before the important German-Chinese government consultations on June 20 in Berlin.

Klingbeil wanted to have “open political talks” with representatives of the Communist Party (KP), he said before departure. He wanted to “also talk about critical topics”. The trip is marked by the reorientation of social democratic foreign and security policy.

That sounds like a clear course, but in reality the SPD is increasingly finding itself in a dilemma when it comes to China policy. Externally, the Social Democrats present themselves as the voice of reason in the China debate – critical, but still cautious like Klingbeil.

The SPD is thus distancing itself from the Green Foreign Minister, Annalena Baerbock, who, in the SPD’s opinion, is acting too forcefully towards China. That goes down well in Beijing. Chinese officials see Chancellor Olaf Scholz on their side, but they don’t think much of Baerbock.

However, Scholz and the SPD are increasingly being pressured by allies to position themselves more clearly towards China. Not only the United States, but also diplomats from Europe are increasingly openly demanding that Berlin express itself more clearly about the consequences a Chinese attack on Taiwan would have for China – including economically.

Annalena Bärbock

During her visit to China, the Federal Foreign Minister criticized human rights violations, among other things.

(Photo: via REUTERS)

Klingbeil has announced that he will address the situation around Taiwan during his visit. He would hardly get around the topic.

Defense ministers from all over the world met in Singapore at the weekend for the Shangri-La Dialogue – Asia’s most important security policy conference.

SPD does not want to commit itself to the consequences of an attack on Taiwan

At the conference, China’s Defense Minister Li Shangfu warned against creating “Nato-like” alliances in the Indo-Pacific. Attempting to promote such alliances there exacerbates conflicts and confrontations, Li said. Germany also wants to send two warships to the Indo-Pacific in 2024.

In the run-up to the meeting, Chinese state media quoted Li as making an indirect threat against Taiwan. “We will never promise not to use force,” Li reportedly said. “China must be united.”

>> Read more: US and China clash in South China Sea incident

Klingbeil had already made it clear publicly that a Chinese attack on Taiwan would have serious consequences. “If China attacks Taiwan, our relationship with China will change fundamentally, as is now the case with Russia,” Klingbeil told Die Zeit. However, neither the SPD leader nor the Federal Chancellor want to commit themselves to the exact consequences of such an attack.

Chinese fighter jet takes off from an aircraft carrier near Taiwan

The conflict over Taiwan is getting worse and worse.

(Photo: AP)

Scholz wants to keep all options open. He had already done so in the case of Russia before the outbreak of the Ukraine war. At that time, he did not want to say that in the event of a Russian attack on Ukraine, the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project would be stopped. Scholz didn’t even mention the word “Nord Stream” for weeks.

This displeased the Greens in particular, who are now also insisting on tougher dealings with China. However, the federal government keeps saying that Baerbock and Scholz only differ in rhetoric on China policy, and that there are no fundamental differences of opinion in terms of content.

>> Read here: Baerbock’s visit shows how the relationship between Beijing and Berlin has changed – one comment

In fact, there has been some approximation lately. During her trip to China, Baerbock demonstratively visited several German companies where German-Chinese cooperation works well.

In a survey in the Bundestag after the trip, she emphasized that China is Germany’s largest trading partner, “and that’s also good and important”. It is important “not to decouple us from China”. It’s about minimizing risk.

Scholz, for his part, has also adjusted his position towards China in recent months. During his visit to Beijing last year, the economic bosses who were traveling with him only played a role in the background, and no contracts were signed.

Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Chinese President Xi Jinping

The SPD is much more reserved in its dealings with China than the Greens are.

(Photo: AP)

The upcoming German-Chinese government consultations on June 20 are likely to be similarly unspectacular. “Just no business as usual,” it says in government circles.

But the coalition is by no means as harmonious as the traffic light shows. Even during Baerbock’s trip to China, the business-friendly SPD wing of the Foreign Minister gave the unsubtle advice from Berlin that “isolation should not be a maxim of the turning point”.

Greens and SPD disagree on dealing with China

However, Baerbock had never asked for it. The attack by the SPD wing was therefore primarily revenge for criticism that Baerbock had leveled last fall in the run-up to Scholz’s trip to China.

There had also recently been disagreements about a partial sale of the port of Hamburg to the Chinese state-owned company Cosco, which Scholz pushed through against Baerbock and other members of the cabinet.

In the Chancellery, on the other hand, there are concerns that Baerbock and Economics Minister Robert Habeck could overshoot the mark on China policy and unnecessarily provoke Beijing.

At its most recent summit, the G7 decided to tighten controls on investments by their own companies in China. The Chancellery wants this screening of foreign investments to be as narrow as possible. It is not known exactly what Habeck has in mind. However, in the past he has been rather decisive on such issues.

Taiwan, controls on foreign investments, China’s concerns about too much Western influence in the Indo-Pacific, then the planned EU economic sanctions against Chinese companies doing business with Russia – the times when meetings of social democrats and Chinese CP representatives went harmoniously , are over. Klingbeil will probably have the same experience on Monday in Beijing.

More: Habeck wants to control China business of German companies.

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