During a speech to the Bundestag on February 27, 2022, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz declared that Germany was experiencing a “Zeitenwende,” or turning point, as a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Since then, Berlin’s policy toward European security in general, and Russia in particular, has shifted drastically. But in another crucial area, its approach toward China, German foreign policy has remained sadly static. And while the country has historically been reluctant to antagonize Beijing, it is becoming abundantly clear that, in order for Scholz’s Zeitenwende to succeed, this state of affairs needs to change.
Here, Berlin’s about-face vis-à-vis Russia is instructive. In January 2023, Germany announced that it would send Ukraine Leopard tanks and allow other countries to do the same, an action that would have been unthinkable a year earlier. Back then, despite growing global concerns that Russia would indeed invade Ukraine, Berlin had merely gifted Ukraine 5,000 helmets, was still refusing to reconsider the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline, or to permit other countries to send Ukraine German-made weapons. Since Russia’s invasion, however, this standoffishness has disappeared; Germany has provided Ukraine with approximately 6.15 billion Euros worth of aid, more than any other country besides the United States and Great Britain. Simultaneously, Berlin – previously deeply dependent on Russia for its gas imports – completely severed its reliance on the Kremlin as an energy provider. Scholz’s government also announced the creation of a 100 billion Euro “special fund” for the purpose of rebuilding Germany’s military, and Scholz and his cabinet have continually emphasized Germany’s intent to take more responsibility for security and defense in Europe. While the Zeitenwende has yet to live up to its full potential, these steps make clear that Germany has fundamentally revised its approach to Russia.
Yet the same can’t be said of Berlin’s policy toward China. Here, German policy has historically lagged behind other European nations – and their concerns about the PRC. In the waning days of 2020 and of Germany’s presidency of the European Union, former Chancellor Angela Merkel forced through an investment treaty with China despite significant reservations from other EU states and objections from the incoming Biden administration. Since taking over as chancellor, Scholz’s government has pursued a very similar policy – approving significant Chinese investments over the concerns of his Foreign Ministry, Finance Ministry, and Economics Ministry, all of which expressed worries China gaining access to critical infrastructure. And on foreign policy, Scholz has reportedly sought to water down his government’s upcoming China strategy “out of concern to name the risks and problems emerging from Beijing all too openly.” In other words, when it comes to China, there has been no Zeitenwende.
These diverging approaches reveal a core inconsistency in how the Scholz government is approaching its new foreign policy vision. As the Scholz government has turned against Russia but sought to preserve relations with China, Beijing has deepened its partnership with Moscow and become increasingly confrontational. The hope that China was turning against Russia’s war in Ukraine, raised by President Xi’s “questions and concerns” during a summit in Samarkand in September 2022, has disappeared, and China has doubled down on its support for Russia, with Putin announcing in late February that Xi will visit Moscow. Moreover, Beijing is reportedly considering giving Russia lethal aid.
Germany’s divergent approaches to China and Russia are untenable for three reasons. First, as Beijing and Moscow tighten their strategic ties, it will be increasingly difficult for Berlin to separate how it treats Russia from how it interacts with China. Second, as Germany’s relationship with Russia worsens and China becomes more assertive, it is unwise for Germany to remain close to a potentially hostile state. Berlin already tried this with Russia between 2014 and 2022, and was caught entirely flatfooted by last year’s invasion of Ukraine as a result. Third, Scholz’s Zeitenwende envisions Germany taking on more responsibility and leadership in Europe on security and defense, and ignoring an increasingly hostile and assertive China severely undercuts that goal. For Germany to truly lead, Berlin will have to recognize the risks of being overly cozy with China, and of ignoring the burgeoning partnership between Beijing and Moscow.
There is good reason to think that Germany might be ready for change in this regard. According to a recent poll by the Allensbach Institute, 60% of Germans now see China as a threat to global peace, and there are distinct groups in German politics which support a harder-line policy toward China. For instance, the Foreign Ministry, led by Annalena Baerbock of the Green party, has been sharply critical of how Chancellor Scholz has handled China policy. Indeed, a draft version of Germany’s China strategy leaked in late 2022, featuring a much sterner approach to the PRC than the Scholz government has adopted to this point.
That suggests a hopeful evolution might be in the offing in the not-too-distant future. In Berlin, politicians are clearly recognizing how their long-standing Russia policy failed – and making some long-overdue adjustments in response. Now, they need to apply the same approach to their dealings with China.