Large parts of the German government have been working for months on a 60-page grand strategy to confront Xi Jinping’s totalitarian and revanchist China, a regime openly pursuing global supremacy on terms that cannot coexist with liberal democracy.
They have been coordinating with the German foreign ministry – under hawkish Green control – and with intelligence analysts at the Bundesnachrichtendienst, alarmed by China’s push to gain access to critical infrastructure and sensitive technology.
They have been working with Brussels on a joint EU approach fit for the new reality of Maoist China after Xi’s purge of every member of the Politburo’s Standing Committee who were thought to seek better relations with the West. They have been trying to convince Washington that they are still worthwhile allies after the sorry saga of Putin appeasement before and immediately after the invasion of Ukraine.
Chancellor Olaf Scholz has cocked a snook at them all. He has rammed through approval for a stake in the Port of Hamburg by China's COSCO in defiance of his own coalition partners.
He arrives in Beijing on Friday flanked by chief executives from Siemens, BASF, BMW, Merck, and the industrial combines, determined to secure a special mercantilist relationship at the expense of fellow EU members and Western allies.
“The Chinese can see the divide in Berlin and Europe, and believe me, they will find a way to exploit it. It is absolutely fatal,” said Noah Barkin from the German Marshall Fund.
Chancellor Scholz has pointedly excluded the head of the German confederation of industry (BDI), Siegfried Russwurm, who is a persona non grata in Beijing after calling for “an honest discussion about how we deal with autocratic trading partners.”
“We must not shy away from confrontation when red lines are crossed,” he said.
Mr Scholz defied warnings from the Biden White House that a visit of this character would erode western unity at a time when China is sabre-rattling over Taiwan and batting for Vladimir Putin in Ukraine, both by helping to sustain the Russian war economy and by deploying the state propaganda machine to present the conflict as NATO aggression.
“The Chancellor does not seem to understand Germany’s dangerous vulnerability to blackmail,” said Kai Strittmatter from the Suddeutsche Zeitung.
Mr Scholz’s dogged pursuit of such a divisive policy recalls the way that Angela Merkel pushed through the notorious EU-China investment agreement just before Joe Biden took office, knowing that the president-elect was appalled by the terms, as were Euro-MPs in Strasbourg. That deal offered the Chinese Communist Party better financial access to the EU than access secured by democratic and allied Britain. So much for the sanctity of the single market.
What is most astonishing is the Chancellor’s treatment of France. He first blocked Emmanuel Macron’s proposals for a joint Franco-German visit to Beijing, an idea intended to prevent China playing off one EU state against another. He then sought to scupper a parallel visit to Beijing this month by Mr Macron, demanding assurances from China that Germany alone would secure the “prize”, if that is what you can call it.
French writer and elder statesman Jacques Attali says relations between Berlin and Paris have reached such a low ebb that a fresh war between the two countries is no longer unthinkable.
“Nothing is more serious for the future of France than what is happening right now with Germany. If we don’t return in short order to the path of progress in European integration, each making concessions to the other, the whole construction of the last sixty years is going to collapse,” he wrote.
This is of course the quaintly outdated view of the post-War French elites for whom Europe means the Franco-German axis – an attitude that irritates other Europeans and played its part on the long road to Brexit. One wonders if Mr Attali is aware how far Franco-German credibility has been degraded in Eastern Europe and the Nordic states by the soft-soaping of Vladimir Putin. Even so, such talk of fratricidal war is astonishing.
Ever since the creation of the European Project in the 1950s, each German Chancellor has bowed three times before the Tricolore, a reverential rite that elegantly masks German power in Europe behind Gallic leadership. The convention has had a pro-forma feel since Reunification and more so since the eastward drift under Angela Merkel. Mr Scholz has stopped even pretending.
His answer to Mr Macron’s push for European strategic sovereignty and joint defence is to steer much of the German procurement budget toward US suppliers, downgrading the European project for fighters and swarming drones (FCAS), as well as the new combat tank to replace the Leopard 2 and Leclerc (MGCS), and maritime patrol aircraft (MAWS). He turned to Israel’s Arrow 3 for air defence.
Germany launched a unilateral €200bn energy bail-out without EU consultation, sweeping aside Mr Macron’s pleas for a combined EU response to avert damaging beggar-thy-neighbour policies. France is itself spending €100bn one way or another, but mostly helping households with fuel bills rather than distorting cross-border EU competition with subsidies for business.
What is most astonishing is the Chancellor’s treatment of France CREDIT: Pierre Suu/Getty Images Europe
The dream of a “Hamiltonian” leap forward to fiscal union and permanent debt-pooling is fading. Berlin is resisting a push for joint debt issuance to cover the energy crisis, a step that would convert the €800bn one-off pandemic fund into something closer to an EU treasury.
Berlin is justifiably wary of this scheme since France and Italy have long been scheming to put their spending on Germany’s credit card. Yet Mr Macron is also right that the euro cannot survive over the long-run without fiscal integration.
There is nothing new about German unilateralism in EU affairs. The violation of EU energy law (with connivance from Brussels) is what allowed Gazprom to gain a lockhold on the Continent. The eurozone’s Lost Decade was really a story of the northern creditor powers hijacking EU institutions to serve as debt-collectors, all camouflaged by a spurious morality tale of feckless Greeks and Latins.
It is not Brexit that poses the greatest threat to EU cohesion, nor hard-Right populist parties. The threat that matters is the eternal temptation of the German Sonderweg, this time expressed in fraternisation with dictatorships bent on destroying the West.
In geopolitics, as in life, you have to choose where you stand. Chancellor Merkel tried to have her cake and eat it over Russian energy, calculating that Germany could secure Putin’s gas at sweetheart prices and undercut industrial competitors in Europe even as it enjoyed the advantages of the EU market and the US military shield. She got away with it but left the time-bomb to her successor.
Chancellor Scholz now calculates that Germany can secure Chinese markets and economic cooperation on preferential terms – by kowtowing to every political demand – while still reaping all the benefits of the Western democratic club.
One can understand why some in Germany think their country is under existential economic threat, as its 20th Century industrial model suddenly unravels, and therefore that compromises must be made. But a Faustian pact with Xi Jinping is no solution.
A German third way that scoffs at cowboy “decoupling” is an illusion. There is no stable middle ground as America and Communist China grapple for civilisational dominance. Mr Scholz might care to read the 60-page report of his own very well-informed ministers, officials, and intelligence agents.
Germany is either with the West or with the anti-West. It cannot straddle the two for long.