Germany after Merkel – Charting a new Course on Foreign Policy?

With the official election of Olaf Scholz as the new German Chancellor by the newly constituted parliament (the Bundestag) on 8 December 2021, the 16-year-long era of Angela Merkel as head of the German government came to an end. Along with Merkel’s farewell ended the governing role of her conservative party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), after achieving a record low of voter shares in the September 2021 parliamentary elections.

Following in her footsteps, Merkel’s former Vice Chancellor Olaf Scholz now leads a three-party coalition government consisting of his own Social Democratic Party (SPD), the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP), and the Greens. 

While talks over its formation were still in process, the members of this so-called traffic light coalition (due to the respective colors of the three parties), did not cease to emphasize the constructive character of their discussions. Yet, some fault lines have been apparent from the beginning, with the coalition’s foreign policy approach, particularly towards non-democratic regimes, being one of the publicly most debated issues. Specifically, relations with Russia and the seemingly new course in dealings with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) have received considerable attention and could potentially lead to conflict between the German coalition partners.

This EIAS-Op-ed will take a closer look at the most important statements of intent formulated in the coalition agreement, highlight the existing tensions between the parties in relation to Russia and the PRC, and further provide a brief outlook on the new government’s anticipated foreign policy direction.

A “value-based” foreign policy

In the run-up to the parliamentary elections, the Green Party, under the leadership of the newly appointed Minister of Foreign Affairs Annalena Baerbock, campaigned inter alia along the promise of greater assertiveness vis-à-vis regimes described as “authoritarian”, particularly those in Moscow and Beijing. This to be embedded in the pursuit of an overall value-based, more Europeanized, foreign policy approach. Together with new coalition partner FDP, which has long been rather critical of the Chinese leadership, the Greens have been among the most outspoken critics of the PRC within the German Bundestag. They will now be measured by concrete actions that must follow up on their campaign rhetoric. This leads to the question of how this will impact the German (and EU) foreign policy, in particular towards China. 

Indeed, the section on foreign policy in the three parties’ 177-pages-long coalition agreement clearly exhibits the liberal green agenda. It strongly emphasizes the importance of a coordinated European approach to foreign policy and stresses the outstanding significance of the transatlantic partnership as well as cooperation with other considered like-minded democratic regimes, also in dealing with China.

The new government seeks to further pursue the EU’s strategic autonomy with the aim of reducing “strategic dependencies” on China in key areas, for example regarding the import of critical resources and network technologies like 5G components. The coalition explicitly aligns with the EU’s view of China as a partner, competitor, and systemic rival, and calls for the development of a comprehensive national China-strategy within the framework of the common EU-China policy. Furthermore, wherever possible, cooperation with China shall be pursued, under the precondition of respect for existing international law and human rights provisions.

In that regard, the current coalition agreement explicitly points to a number of ongoing conflicts concerning the PRC, including the East and South China Seas, the Taiwan Strait, inclusion of Taiwan in international organizations, human rights, Xinjiang and Hong Kong. 

Shortly after publication of the coalition contract, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian responded in a press briefing ”that issues related to Taiwan, Xinjiang and Hong Kong are all China’s internal affairs, bearing on China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.” He expressed hope that the new German government would honor the One-China-Policy and continue to ”carry on China policies that are practical.”

The open display of criticism against the PRC exemplifies a clear turn and new foreign policy direction, constituting a clear departure from the rather restrained tone of the late years of the Merkel era. Indeed, former Chancellor Angela Merkel enjoyed a good reputation in Beijing, as her China policy was characterized by a mostly pragmatic and mercantilist approach. Yet, she also voiced criticism against the Chinese leadership on several subjects, and repeatedly raised human rights issues during past visits to the country. However, in light of a rising China and faced with an increasingly unpredictable transatlantic partnership, Merkel did not simply subscribe to the progressively confrontational China-policy pursued by the White House in recent years.      

It remains to be seen how this will evolve under the new government, but if the non-legally-binding coalition agreement can serve as an indication, there will be “close transatlantic coordination on China policy”, and overall relations with the US envisaged to be strengthened again, as this partnership constitutes a “central pillar” of the coalition’s international action. This was further illustrated by Baerbock’s meeting with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Washington DC on 5 January 2022. Even though the trip had to be cut short due to the spread of the Omicron Covid-19 variant, Baerbock insisted on visiting the US, thus highlighting the importance of Germany-US relations and demonstrating a united front before the negotiations on Ukraine with Russia.   

Potential Tensions

Having only just assembled, the new German government already faces a number of pressing foreign policy issues, including the large-scale deployment of Russian military forces along the Ukrainian border, the crisis in Kazakhstan, and the completion of Nord Stream 2. The latter represents one of the major stress points of the new governing coalition. The pipeline, which has been strongly criticized by both the Greens and FDP, is a project with a long history of SPD advocacy. Olaf Scholz, seemingly seeking to follow the pragmatic and mercantilist foreign policy course of the previous administration, during which he served as Minister of Finance, initially referred to the pipeline as a non-political private sector project, therefore dismissing criticism about its potential geopolitical and geo-economic implications. In addition, federal Minister of Defense Christine Lambrecht and other voices from within the SPD stated in January 2022 that Nord Stream 2 must not be ”dragged into” the conflict with Russia over Ukraine, thus sparking heated criticism from the US Congress. Baerbock, along with newly appointed Vice-Chancellor Robert Habeck of the Green Party, as well as many other members of the FDP and Greens, strongly disagreed with the SPD’s perspective, and emphasized the pipeline’s geopolitical repercussions for the EU and its eastern neighbors. Habeck made it clear that any further Russian aggression against Ukraine would be considered crossing a red line with regard to Germany’s Russia policy and Nord Stream 2 in particular. Yet, as per current status, Nord Stream 2 will likely become operational in the second half of 2022, with the final approval by German authorities merely being postponed due to legal matters, expected to be resolved soon.

Similar differences are becoming visible regarding the government’s new China course. While the coalition agreement clearly points towards a more assertive posture vis-à-vis the People’s Republic, there is reason to doubt the coalition’s unity on the issue. In fact, during Scholz’ tenure as mayor of the federal city state of Hamburg, the city forged close economic ties with China, thus generating considerable economic benefits. Among other things, Scholz laid the groundwork for a deal with Chinese shipping company Cosco that transferred 35% of the ownership of a container terminal to the Chinese company. Therefore, Scholz, who generally favored cooperation and quiet diplomacy in the past, is no stranger to “merkelesque” pragmatic economic engagement with China.

Furthermore, prior to concluding the coalition agreement, Scholz reportedly asked the President of the European Council Charles Michel to convey a message to President Xi, that the new government would maintain the pragmatic course of bilateral engagement of the previous administration. This supposedly entailed a reaffirmation of his support for the EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI), which was strongly pushed by the former Merkel government and has been heavily criticized by both FDP and Greens, ultimately leading to a call for renegotiations in the coalition contract. This message to Xi may have been the first sign of the new Chancellor’s intent to direct German foreign policy from the office of the Chancellery, thus potentially undermining the Green-led Foreign Office. This would be a continuation of the past Merkel governments’ modus operandi, which was characterized by a growing concentration of foreign policy making competency in the Chancellor’s office. However, Scholz is not yet as powerful as Merkel was, and is dependent on a well-functioning relationship with his coalition partners. Also, Annalena Baerbock will certainly not concede her foreign policy agenda lightly to the SPD, as it involved important campaign promises. Hence, this would severely damage her credibility and impair the chances of regaining confidence in her, which was partly lost in the course of a rocky campaign.

During Scholz’ first telephone call with Xi Jinping after taking office, the Chinese President expressed his desire to “preserve the excellent tradition of a high-rank leadership style”. Thus, he made clear that he would prefer Scholz to determine the course of German foreign policy towards China instead of Baerbock’s Foreign Office, or other elements of the new government. This does not come as a surprise, as several of the new cabinet members have been critical of China in the past, with Baerbock leading the charge, even suggesting a possible denial of access to the European market, to be used as a tool of European foreign policy. Critique has also originated from the ranks of the FDP cabinet members. New Minister of Education Bettina Stark-Watzinger repeatedly criticized the Chinese influence over politics and civil society in Hongkong. Therefore, in her new function, she may seek to actively limit Chinese engagement with German civil society and universities, in order to avoid financial reliance and dependencies. This could potentially translate into the implementation of a more restrictive policy of cooperation for German universities during her term, for example with regard to the Confucius Institutes. Furthermore, FDP chairman and new Minister of Finance Christian Lindner stated in the past that, western democracies should confidently respond to China’s growing assertiveness. During a delegation to Asia in 2019, Lindner also met with members of the parliamentary opposition in Hong Kong, which earned him strong criticism from Communist Party officials during a subsequent visit to Beijing. 

In an effort to rekindle the official Sino-German exchange, which has suffered since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, particularly below the highest level, China sent former ambassador to Germany Shi Mingde as special envoy to Germany. Over the course of almost two weeks in November 2021, he met with industry leaders as well as political representatives such as Christian Lindner, the Head of the Chancellor’s Office Wolfgang Schmidt, and former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. Besides reportedly seeking to mend relations with some critical voices, this visit certainly served China to assess the latest political climate towards the PRC.

A Foreign Policy outlook

The upcoming Winter Olympic Games in Beijing could be a telling indicator of what to expect from the German leadership’s China policy moving forward. While the US, the UK and others have announced a diplomatic boycott of the Games, Scholz showed reservations and referred to the aim of developing a joint European position on the issue. However, at that time, French President Macron already made clear that he will not support a boycott and aims not to politicize the event. Therefore, a European boycott with German participation is unlikely to materialize due to the lack of consensus among the EU member states. Yet, no high-ranking German officials are likely to travel to Beijing either, with Baerbock ruling out a visit to Beijing, calling it a “personal decision”, without fully dismissing the possibility of a boycott. In addition, FDP Minister of the Interior Nancy Faeser, who is in charge of matters relating to sports, cited the pandemic situation as the main reason to abstain from the games. The new coalition government thus attempts to pursue a balanced approach, seeking not to affront the PRC, without being seen to actively support it either. At the same time, Baerbock’s “personal decision” not to attend the Olympics, is in line with her party’s stance on China, thus preserving her image. A solution like the Netherlands’ pandemic-related refraining from sending an official delegation appears to be the most likely outcome for Germany as well, as Faeser’s response already suggests. Therefore, the current pandemic development undoubtedly helped the government to save its face on the matter, as the current situation plausibly discourages attendance of the games.

Still, this administration harbors potential for conflict revolving around the question of who can ultimately claim to wield the authority on foreign policy? With Baerbock leading the Foreign Office and Habeck as Minister of Economy and Climate Protection, the Greens are well positioned to exert considerable influence over the country’s foreign policy direction. However, they will likely have to cope with a chancellor who will attempt to direct a more “practical” foreign policy agenda from his office. Baerbock’s ability to perform on the global stage had initially been doubted by many in the German media landscape, who suspected her of being unable to discern the differences between campaign-idealism and real world diplomacy. At this point however, the tides appear to have turned and she is gaining momentum both domestically and internationally, while German allies in Europe and across the Atlantic are increasingly questioning Scholz’ Russia policy.

In fact, Scholz seemingly seeks to pursue a policy of détente particularly with respect to Russia, and is looking to reboot relations with Moscow. In the face of the recent deployment of Russian troops to Kazakhstan as well as to the Ukrainian border, this approach has been creating tensions among the coalition partners. The absence of any mention of Nord Stream 2 in the coalition contract, and the Green Party’s implied effective acceptance of the already completed pipeline’s eventual certification show that the Greens were willing to cede some ground to the SPD, in order not to destabilize the coalition. Yet, the Ukraine situation continues to evolve, and any further escalation would likely put more pressure on the SPD to change its course, and potentially entail major consequences for the pipeline, thus constituting the first litmus test of the new government’s cohesion. However, Chancellor Scholz already amended his rhetoric during a press conference with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg on 18 January 2022. There, despite not mentioning Nord Stream 2, he reaffirmed his commitment to an existing agreement with President Biden, according to which Germany would press for sanctions against Russia, should Putin continue his pressure against Ukraine, thereby threatening to impose “severe economic costs” upon Russia.

The surprising omission of the pipeline from the coalition contract may have been a concession to the SPD in return for a tougher stance on China, which is reflected by the unusually strong wording of the coalition agreement with respect to the PRC. President Xi already made clear that he would wish to primarily deal with Scholz and continue the late Merkel era’s pragmatic cooperation. However, this administration will likely take on a more critical rhetoric vis-à-vis China, although this does not mean that economic cooperation with the country will therefore be reduced. More likely, Germany will continually raise issues of human rights and international law with Beijing, while seeking to prevent the foreign acquisition of companies in critical industries and trying to secure supply chains in  support of the EU’s pursuit of strategic autonomy in key sectors. The government would do well to attempt to form a united European voice in dealings with China, as a 27+1 approach is preferred for European countries to interact on eye level with the PRC. This would be consistent with the intentions set out in the coalition agreement to introduce qualified majority voting on matters relating to the bloc’s Common Foreign and Security Policy, as well as to strengthen the EU’s External Action Service and transform the role of the High Representative towards a genuine EU Minister of Foreign Affairs. Whether Baerbock will attempt to follow up on her thought of using the denial of access to the European market as a tool of foreign policy remains to be seen. She could attempt to gather support for the utilization of the EU’s yet untested new anti-coercion mechanism, with regard to the current case of sanctions against Lithuania. However, it is highly questionable whether all member states would support such measures at this point, considering that even the German government itself would probably be divided on the issue. 

Overall, the tone of German foreign policy will presumably become more confident and outspoken. However, given Scholz’ apparent pursuit of continuity, it appears unlikely that the general foreign policy direction will undergo fundamental changes. Besides, the current crisis in Ukraine highlights its mostly reactive character. Yet, much will depend on the ongoing struggle for leadership on foreign policy making among the new coalition partners, who would greatly profit from overcoming those issues and presenting a united front. Indeed, should they manage to do so, and act according to the coalition agreement, German foreign policy might actually deviate noticeably from that of the late Merkel era. Which course the coalition will take on its foreign policy will thus undoubtedly become more clear over the course of the next couple of months.

Author: Tom Wilms, Junior Researcher, EIAS

Photo Credits: Maheshkumar Painam on Unsplash