The Hamburg port deal: a model to reconnect China and Europe

Gloria Sand
It could emerge as a best practice to be adopted in other domains where negotiations are necessary.
Gloria Sand

G20 leaders just left Bali and it is clear that their attitude toward China is about to change. US President Joe Biden has been the first leader to officially confirm that the one-China policy is set to remain the pillar of China-US relationship, adding that his county is not looking for any sort of confrontation with China, rather committed to investing on the reopening of all possible channels of communication.

If Biden's declaration on Monday can be seen as a premise for a change in Washington's attitude toward Beijing, the attention Chinese President Xi Jinping has received from the representatives of Argentina, France, Turkey, South Africa and Saudi Arabia highlights that the United States is not the only country interested in tempering contemporary hostile narrative vis-à-vis China to relaunch a more constructive bilateral dialogue.

In this context, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz seems standing out as the forerunner of a new model of interaction with China, grounded on a more cautious and reasoned pragmatism.

Despite the wave of criticism that accompanied his official visit to China on November 4, it is now clear that the Scholz's choice might soon impose itself as a useful reference for other countries interested in reconnecting with China, especially within the European Union.

In Beijing, Scholz proved to be brave and pragmatic enough to challenge Xi on their mutual need to strike a balance between partnership, competition and strategic rivalry in German relations with China. On one hand, Germany seems to be no longer naive when it comes to China. On the other hand, it looks persuaded that former naivety cannot be replaced with hysteria, as economic dissociation from China is neither realistic nor desirable.

In this delicate process meant to identify a more stable and fulfilling equilibrium between China and the rest of the world, the Hamburg port deal could emerge as a best practice to be adopted in other domains where a mediation with China will be needed.

In late October, when Chinese shipping giant COSCO revealed its intention to buy a 35 percent stake in a Hamburg port terminal, criticism mounted in Germany, claiming that by authorizing the Chinese investment, Scholz's government was putting the security of national maritime infrastructure at risk. Rather than halting all negotiations with COSCO, the German Cabinet opted for revising the initial stake to "below 25 percent," arguing that if the Chinese state-owned enterprise doesn't get a major position in the port, the security of the latter could be guaranteed together with the investment.

The Hamburg port deal finally succeeded. Before imposing his line to the rest of the government, the German chancellor tried to discuss his pragmatic position with other EU countries, and mainly France, aware that President Emmanuel Macron is for now the only European leader who is keen to relaunch a constructive dialogue with China.

If the Hamburg port deal represents a good compromise for Germany, as it guarantees the access to precious investments without giving the impression of allowing China to strengthen its leverage on the European economy, Beijing has a lot to gain from this compromise, too. First, if the deal emerges as a best practice for Europe, numerous investment opportunities will rapidly materialize for China in the whole region. Second, in a confidence-building logic, China remains willing to prove its investments are not meant at creating any form of dependence. Third, with a 25 percent stake guaranteed, it inevitably becomes easier to increase one's commitment ... when conditions permit, or in case of need.

(The author is an independent researcher based in Paris. The views are her own.)

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