Why European leaders should visit China?

Gloria Sand
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz's China trip will prove, in both medium and long-term perspective, to be the best possible way to read President Xi's China vision.
Gloria Sand

G7 foreign ministers had a new round of talks in Germany last week with two priorities on the agenda: the war in Ukraine and its global impact, and a reassessment of their current China policy.

To be precise, German foreign minister Annalena Baerbock has declared that the urgency of starting a confrontation on G7's current China policy is necessary to prevent the grouping from repeating the same mistakes that have been made with its Russia policy.

This statement can be read in two ways: On one hand, the emphasis has been given to the importance of updating G7's China policy to make sure China is becoming an "uncontrolled threat." On the other hand, G7 countries want to refine their China policy to better handle a possible decoupling.

To make sure to take the best possible decision for Germany, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz flew to Beijing to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping on November 4 and discuss with him the nuances of China-German partnership. Scholz is not the only foreign leader to visit China right after the 20th CPC National Congress, but he is the first European to do so. Hopefully the first of a long list.

Despite that Scholz's China trip was not welcomed neither in Europe nor in the United States, as the chancellor was accused of taking a "dangerous posture" by showing an intention to relaunch Berlin's partnership with Beijing "without considering the negative spillover effects of such a move," in fact Scholz's decision will prove, in both medium and long-term perspective, to be the best possible one to untangle President Xi's China vision.

The whole business community in Germany is against any form of decupling from China, and their voice is not isolated in the region. All pressures to isolate China come from political spheres, and mainly because of the deep interactions between EU political circles and the American ones. The arguments that are regularly raised to emphasize the merits of this attitude are always the same: China cannot be trusted, and the Communist Party of China has endorsed an authoritarian style of governance that will inevitably turn any of its partners in a dangerous position of high dependence.

However, using these so-called uncompromising principles to justify a confrontative approach in any area of potential cooperation will soon prove to be a double-edged sword. Chancellor Scholz has clearly understood that, and he decided to fly to China to prove the legitimacy of his vision.

This trip has confirmed three trends. First, Germany is an independent country and, accordingly, will continue to shape its own policies following internal national interest rather than the American one. Second, it is unconceivable to isolate the world's second-largest economic power. Third, that is certainly more useful and efficient to try to untangle President Xi's priorities and his vision for China while talking to him directly, rather than following analysis grounded on external and, therefore, not always reliable observations.

For all these reasons, Chancellor Scholz's hope is that other European leaders will follow his example, and that the nuances of all these exchanges will be shared within European political circles, to make sure that a new EU-China policy evolves according to them.

French President Emmanuel Macron is expected to be the second European leader traveling to China before the end of the year. Hopefully he will follow Scholz along this confidence building path and make another pragmatic step forward in the China-EU rapprochement.

(The author is an independent researcher based in Paris.)

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