November 7, 2022
On June 14, 2021, Mr. Biden arrived in Brussels on his first trip to Europe as President. His principal task at the NATO summit was to put behind America’s allies’ troubled relations with the Trump White House and rally NATO’s support in the strategic competition with Moscow and Beijing.
The two paragraphs dealing with China, the first time in a NATO communiqué, started by saying that China’s stated ambitions and assertive behavior present systemic challenges to the rules-based international order and areas relevant to Alliance security. In this connection, the Communique mentioned China’s rapidly expanding nuclear arsenal; its opaqueness in implementing its military modernization; its military cooperation with Russia, including through participation in Russian exercises in the Euro-Atlantic area; its “frequent lack of transparency and use of disinformation”.
The Communique then said, “NATO maintains a constructive dialogue with China where possible. Based on our interests, we welcome opportunities to engage with China on areas of relevance to the Alliance and on common challenges such as climate change… Allies urge China to engage meaningfully in dialogue, confidence-building, and transparency measures regarding its nuclear capabilities and doctrine. Reciprocal transparency and understanding would benefit both NATO and China.”
Three months after the NATO summit, on September 15, 2021, President Biden, Prime Ministers Morrison, and Johnson announced the creation of AUKUS. China reacted.
On February 4, 2022, three weeks before Russia’s onslaught on Ukraine, Presidents Putin and Xi Jinping held talks in Beijing. The joint statement issued after their meeting said:
“Friendship between the two States has no limits, there are no “forbidden” areas of cooperation, strengthening of bilateral strategic cooperation is neither aimed against third countries nor affected by the changing international environment and circumstantial changes in third countries.”
Russia’s launching of the invasion of Ukraine on February 24 was a shock to the world. The Chinese-Russian Joint Statement issued only three weeks earlier led to speculation about whether President Putin had informed his Chinese counterpart about what he had in mind.
Thus, on March 15, Mr. Qin Gang, China’s Ambassador to Washington declared:
“There have been claims that China had prior knowledge of Russia’s military action and demanded Russia delay it until the Winter Olympics concluded. Recent rumors further claimed that Russia was seeking military assistance from China. Let me say this responsibly: Assertions that China knew about, acquiesced to, or tacitly supported this war are purely disinformation.” [i]
And, on March 18, presidents Biden and Xi had a video conference. The day before the meeting, Secretary Blinken, in remarks to the press said, “President Biden will be speaking to President Xi tomorrow and will make clear that China will bear responsibility for any actions it takes to support Russia’s aggression, and we will not hesitate to impose costs.”
China’s Foreign Ministry had a longer readout of the Biden-Xi meeting and said that President Biden reiterated that the US does not seek a new Cold War with China; is ready to have candid dialogue and closer cooperation with China; and effectively manage competition and disagreements to ensure the steady growth of the relationship.[ii]
The shorter White House readout was a confirmation of what Secretary Blinken had said a day earlier, a warning against Chinese support for Russia. [iii]
Against this background, it appears that Chancellor Scholz’s eleven-hour visit to Beijing with a group of top German business executives has created concern in Germany and among NATO allies. It is said that Mr. Scholz is the first Western leader visit to China since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, and the first major political leader to meet Xi Jinping since he cemented his grip on power at the Chinese Communist Party Congress. Moreover, China has not condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and continues with its repression of the Uyghurs.
On the one hand, China is under authoritarian rule and represses the Uyghurs. It has neither condemned nor openly supported Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But on the other hand, China is the world’s second global power, may soon become number one, and it is Germany’s most important trading partner for the sixth consecutive year.
A day before his departure for Beijing, Chancellor Scholz in an op-ed published in Politico explained the rationale of his visit.[iv]
Referring to the war in Ukraine he said that as a permanent member of the Security Council, China bears a special responsibility, clear words addressed from Beijing to Moscow are important to ensure that the Charter of the United Nations and its principles are upheld. He drew attention to the risks of having new blocs emerge in the world. He said that China will play a key role on the world stage in the future adding that this justifies neither the calls by some to isolate China nor a quest for hegemonic Chinese dominance or even a Sinocentric world order.
While calling China an important business and trading partner for Germany and Europe, he stressed that the two countries are far, too far, from reciprocity in relations, adding that where China refuses to allow this reciprocity though, that cannot be without consequences.
Andhe said, “In the run-up to my visit, we have therefore liaised closely with our European partners, including President Macron, and also with our transatlantic friends.”
In brief, Chancellor Scholz saw merit in continuing political dialogue, not pushing Beijing and Moscow closer to one another, and continuing economic and trade cooperation with China. Moreover, this year marks the 50th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and Germany.
As Chancellor Scholz concluded his visit to Beijing, G7 foreign ministers meeting in Münster, Germany, issued a statement on a range of international issues ranging from Russia’s war against Ukraine to Haiti.
On China, they said that they aim for constructive cooperation with China, where possible and in G7’s interest, in particular on global challenges like peace and security which can only be tackled successfully through cooperation within the “rules-based international order” that both China and Russia flatly reject.[v] The G7 foreign ministers also reiterated the position on Taiwan and Hong Kong and reported human rights violations and abuses, including in Xinjiang and Tibet.
How much their language rhymed with Chancellor Scholz’s speaking notes is a question.
Chinese readout of the meeting between the two leaders in Beijing said, “China always regards Europe as a comprehensive strategic partner. It supports the strategic autonomy of the European Union and wishes Europe stability and prosperity. China maintains that its relations with Europe are not targeted at, dependent on, or subjected to a third party.” [vi]
For decades, Europe enjoyed America’s support for its security. It enjoyed a steady supply of Russian oil and gas. And it enjoyed an expanding economic and trade cooperation with China. During the four years of the Trump presidency, Europeans only heard that they had to spend more on defense. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine not only confirmed President Trump’s message but also disrupted energy supplies from Russia. Now there is also the challenge of redefining the relationship with China. Add to all this, the unpredictability of US domestic politics, and the likelihood of Mr. Trump again running for president in 2024.
In a New York Times article titled, “It’s Time to Bring Russia and Ukraine to the Negotiating Table”, Charles A. Kupchan wrote, “The United States and its allies also need to be concerned about the rising economic and political threat that a long war poses to Western democracy and solidarity. The trans-Atlantic community has so far shown remarkable unity and resolve in supporting Ukraine, but the West’s staying power may be fragile… The economic dislocations produced by the war are heightening the internal threats to Western democracy and straining solidarity on supporting Ukraine. Soaring inflation and looming recessions have the potential to produce toxic political effects.” [vii] (emphasis added)
In such a time of turmoil, Chancellor Scholz’s visit to Beijing was the right choice. The West needs to keep its lines of communication with Beijing open and energize diplomacy to end this cruel war in Ukraine.