Germany and the Asia-Pacific
Joshua Webb, Editor, The Berlin Pulse, Körber-Stiftung, Berlin
Hong Kong, Huawei, the persecution of Xinjiang’s Uighurs – Beijing has dominated much of 2019’s headlines in international affairs. The heated debate on China clearly demonstrates that the question of how Europeans should square an indispensable economic partnership with increasing security concerns is becoming ever more urgent. But how much of this debate has reached the public so far?
With an increasing number (46 %) of Germans perceiving China’s growing influence as negative and 77 % rejecting the Chinese model of state capitalism and authoritarian rule, there is a palpable sense of unease: Three quarters of the population feel that Germany ought to defend its interests more assertively, even in the face of adverse economic consequences. On the other hand, 60 % are in favour of increasing cooperation with Beijing. As Thorsten Benner argues, the fact that 42 % of Germans perceive China’s growing clout as neutral is a clear signal that Germany is yet to have a serious debate on how to position itself.
Two is company, three is a party: The situation becomes even more complex when taking into account Washington’s increasingly confrontational China policy. Yes, Germans may feel uncomfortable with China, but they are likewise uneasy with aligning themselves with the US: Only 50 % feel that close relations with Washington are more important for Berlin than keeping close to Beijing, and a majority of 54 % is against Germany following the US example of adopting a tougher trade policy towards China.
But Europe is not an island, and much as Germans may wish, keeping aloof from the complex, challenging realities of foreign policy is not a sustainable option for Europe’s largest economy. As Germany’s partners both in Europe and across the Indo-Pacific region are calling on Berlin to engage more with the region, there are silver linings, too: 49 % of Germans believe that Berlin should take part in naval missions to protect freedom of navigation and maritime trade routes. Moreover, as Frances Adamson of Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade points out, there are multiple ways beyond such operations for Germany to strengthen its position in the region, be it through advocacy or development assistance.
Either way, as François Godement points out, Germany must not pretend it is small and helpless – elsewise, within no more than a few decades, it just might come true.