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German leader Scholz visits China’s Xi amid misgiving from his allies

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, left, meets Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of People in Beijing, Friday. (Kay Nietfeld/AP)

BERLIN — German Chancellor Olaf Scholz traveled to Beijing on Friday, becoming the first Group of Seven leader to visit since the start of the pandemic, even as allies raised concerns about its optics and the German leader’s ability to deliver a clear, coherent message.

In a joint news conference with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, Scholz said discussions had covered a wide range of issues including trade, the status of Taiwan and human rights. He said that he had pressed President Xi Jinping to leverage Russia regarding the war in Ukraine.

“The president and I agree nuclear threatening gestures are irresponsible and extremely dangerous,” he said.

But the fact that Scholz was accompanied by a delegation of business leaders — putting an economic emphasis on the trip — struck some observers as worrisome. Scholz called for trade ties “as equals” and Li pointed to the “huge growth potential” for China and Germany, according to a translation of his remarks.

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Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, there is now broad consensus in Europe about the need to rethink ties with China. But some allies say Scholz appears to be out of step, and have expressed frustration that Berlin is not doing more to coordinate policy.

Scholz’s visit comes shortly after a contentious decision to allow the sale of a stake in a German port terminal to a Chinese firm, despite German intelligence warnings and furious opposition from within his cabinet.

Critics have also questioned the approving message that might be conveyed by a Beijing trip on the heels of Xi’s appointment to a norm-defying third term, securing his position as the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong.

“There is a little bit of shock across the continent. And this serves China’s interest in dividing Europe,” said Bonnie Glaser, director of the Asia Program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. “There is concern in Washington, as well. The United States is feeling like this is a moment where we all have to be aligned.”

The economic bent had drawn comparisons with former chancellor Angela Merkel’s mercantilist approach to foreign policy, which cemented Germany’s reliance on cheap Russian energy and left Berlin painfully exposed when relations with Moscow deteriorated over the war in Ukraine.

Scholz has touted a zeitenwende, or “turning point,” in German foreign and defense policy since the start of the war in Ukraine. He has said the invasion, along with changes in China itself, have forced a fundamental shift in German government strategy toward Beijing. He is known as a cautious leader, however. And with a recession looming, he does not appear eager to dramatically disrupt Germany’s relationship with its largest trading partner.

Writing Wednesday in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, the chancellor dismissed the notion of “decoupling” from China and instead talked about eliminating “risky dependencies.” He said he intends to press Xi and Premier Li on reciprocity in areas such as market access and intellectual property protection.

Ahead of the trip Scholz pledged not to “ignore controversies,” including “respect for civil and political liberties and the rights of ethnic minorities,” China’s threats toward Taiwan and its tacit support of Russian aggression in Ukraine.

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Under Xi, China has grown more authoritarian at home and more assertive on the world stage. It has waged a brutal crackdown on Uyghurs and other Turkic minorities, crushed dissent in Hong Kong and raised the specter of military force to take control of Taiwan.

During the two men’s Friday meeting at the Great Hall of the People, Xi called for Germany and China to work together in a time of “change and chaos.” By seeking common ground while managing differences, “bilateral relations won’t stray from the correct overall direction and stable progress will be made,” state broadcaster China Central Television reported Xi saying.

Chinese scholars have hailed Scholz’s visit as sending a strong signal rebuffing those who call for European and North American economies, businesses and technology supply chains to distance themselves from China.

“Clearly, Germany is well aware that relations with China must start with its own national interests, and ‘decoupling’ or hostile relations are not in Germany’s interests,” Ding Chun, director of the Center for European Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai, told state-run China News Service on Friday morning. “Even if voices unfriendly to China inside and outside Germany question the relationship, German leaders still show an independent and pragmatic understanding of China,” he said.

Six German government ministries voiced objections last month to the port deal that allowed Chinese shipping giant Cosco to buy a stake in a port terminal in the northern city of Hamburg. Germany’s intelligence chiefs also issued stark public warnings about the dangers of Chinese investment in the country’s infrastructure and businesses.

“Russia is the storm, but China is climate change,” said the head of domestic intelligence, Thomas Haldenwang. Bruno Kahl, from Germany’s equivalent of the CIA, added that security services were “very very critical” of the sale of important infrastructure to China.

In the end, Scholz — a former mayor of Hamburg — pushed through a compromise that permitted Cosco to buy a reduced 25 percent stake, rather than a previously planned 35 percent, which would have amounted to a blocking minority.

A senior State Department official told The Washington Post on Wednesday that the compromise followed concerted engagement by U.S. officials in Berlin.

“The embassy was very clear that we strongly suggested that there be no controlling interest by China, and, as you see, when they adjusted the deal, there isn’t,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive diplomatic talks.

China’s Foreign Ministry responded angrily Thursday to the suggestion that the United States had played a role in the deal.

“Pragmatic cooperation between China and Germany is a matter for the two sovereign countries; the United States should not attack it without reason and has no right to meddle and interfere,” spokesman Zhao Lijian told reporters in Beijing.

A second U.S. official suggested that the port sale “confirms that Scholz and his team truly haven’t learned from Russia-Ukraine.” The official, speaking on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the topic, said the arguments about the risks felt like a “repeat” of debates over Nord Stream 2, the controversial Russian gas pipeline that German officials for years framed as a purely commercial private business deal.

Scholz’s government is also poised to permit a Chinese takeover of a German microchip company. The potential takeover of the Dortmund, Germany-based microchip company Elmos by a wholly owned subsidiary of China’s Sai Micro Electronics comes as the United States moves to cut China off from advanced technology through export controls.

The German government has argued that the technology used by Elmos is outdated, but the decision still goes against express warnings from German intelligence, Handlesblatt newspaper reported.

Collectively, the actions have contributed to a sense of bafflement and frustration with Germany’s leadership from partners such as the United States and fellow members of the European Union, who would like to see more coordination from Berlin.

Scholz maintains that he coordinated his China trip with the E.U., France and the United States. “[I]f I am traveling to Beijing as Germany’s federal chancellor, I’m also doing so as a European,” he wrote in an op-ed preceding the trip. “Not to speak on behalf of all of Europe — that would be presumptuous and wrong — but because German policy on China can only be successful when it is embedded in European policy on China.”

His visit came just before this month’s Group of 20 summit in Bali, Indonesia, where U.S. officials are preparing for a possible meeting between Xi and Biden — and are trying mightily to signal that Europe, the United States and other allies are united in the face of Russia’s war.

The State Department official said that Scholz’s op-ed explanation of his China trip was in line with U.S. preferences but that Washington would be watching with keen interest.

“What’s important to us is that he sends strong messages about all of the things that we have collectively been willing to do if China will engage, but have been concerned about in terms of China’s coercive and other behaviors,” the official said.

Janka Oertel, director of the Asia program at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said it would be a mistake to think that Germany is not wrestling with the lessons of the war in Ukraine. The debate is happening at nearly all levels of society, she said, from government to business and academia.

“There is no analytical problem in terms of understanding what the problem is,” she said. “The challenge is what to do about it.”

Rauhala reported from Brussels and Hudson from Munster, Germany. Rick Noack in Paris and Christian Shepherd in Taipei contributed to this report.