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Opinion The German chancellor’s China trip is about lessons learned — and not

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing on Friday. (Yao Dawei/Xinhua News Agency/AP)

Germany’s economic success in the 21st century has relied on the effort and talent of its own people, plus three ingredients: cheap energy from Russia, growing exports to China and security from the U.S.-led NATO alliance. The war in Ukraine exposed the geopolitical contradictions of this arrangement. Berlin was forced to abandon a natural gas pipeline connection to Russia, scramble for energy from elsewhere and promise to boost its anemic defense spending. Yet there are only so many transitions Germany can manage at once. Or so Chancellor Olaf Scholz seems to believe, based on his understandable but ultimately dubious decision to be the first major Western leader to visit Beijing since the covid-19 pandemic began in 2020.

Accompanied by a phalanx of top German business executives, Mr. Scholz telegraphed that commerce remains Berlin’s main interest in China. In an op-ed published before the visit, the chancellor voiced a need to diversify German supply chains from China but — in the sentence that no doubt made the most impact in Beijing — declared: “We don’t want to decouple from it.” His government sent a similar signal by permitting a Chinese shipping company to take a 24.9 percent stake in a terminal at the port of Hamburg, Germany’s largest. Berlin scaled back the investment from 35 percent, which would have given the company, Cosco, a legal right to veto strategic business or personnel decisions. Still, this compromise harked back to the hairsplitting Mr. Scholz’s predecessor, Angela Merkel, offered in defense of Germany’s now-suspended Russian gas pipeline, Nord Stream 2. Neither the United States nor — significantly — the two political parties with whom Mr. Scholz’s Social Democrats co-govern are happy about anything that could deepen Germany’s interdependence with China, a nation that has, so far, passively supported Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and, by anointing Mr. Xi, rededicated itself to one-party Marxist-Leninist rule.

To be sure, Mr. Scholz is right that Germany must continue talking with China, including direct contacts between himself and Mr. Xi; President Biden is said to be planning a summit at the scheduled Group of 20 meetings in Bali later this month. The German leader even produced an arguably beneficial outcome: a statement with Mr. Xi saying the two “jointly oppose the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons.” The implicit admonition to Russian President Vladimir Putin was clear. It’s asking a lot for a country as dependent on business with China as Germany to cut it off altogether, especially when it is already facing an economic slump because of its sudden shift away from Russian energy. On the other hand, Germany is asking a lot of the Biden administration when it makes moves such as the Hamburg port deal while continuing to shelter under a U.S. security umbrella.

Not too much to ask would have been for Mr. Scholz to at least pause engagement with Beijing until after he and his coalition partners, the Green Party and the Free Democratic Party, have completed a policy review they promised by 2023. Even after its calamitous miscalculation with Russia, it appears, Germany’s old habits die hard.

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