HAMBURG, Germany It may be no coincidence that the German government chose Leipzig as the location for the special EU-China summit, scheduled for the end of the year.
After all, the citizens of Leipzigs were the first to rally en masse in 1989 to protest against the despotism and contempt of the East German communists. Many feared that the regime would blindly kill protesters who demanded basic democratic freedoms, just as the Chinese Communist Party did in June of the same year.
Fortunately, the result was very different: the regime collapsed, the Berlin Wall fell and the country was reunified. The Germans call Leipzig Heldenstadt, the city of heroes.
What Chinese President Xi Jinping will do with this story is unclear. But we will have the opportunity to find out: the summit will take place, despite the coronavirus. Germany, which will assume the rotating presidency of the European Union on July 1, seems impatient to send a message to Beijing. Europe still belongs to the political West, as Chancellor Angela Merkel said in May.
While Merkel stressed that Europe must take its destiny in hand The United States’ geopolitical emancipation code, she stressed that the European Union should unite to prevail over China’s powerful code. Together, she says, we want to lead Europe to a new force.
It is much easier said than done. Europe is sandwiched between two rival powers, President Trump prevails over the belligerent United States and Mr. Xis’ intrusive China, who despise multilateralism and militarize trade. And it doesn’t help that the continent, trying to balance strategic imperatives and economic interests, is in the midst of its worst economic downturn since World War II.
The tension is evident. While the United States, Canada, Australia and Great Britain have issued a joint statement condemning China’s national security law in Hong Kong, which amounts to a legal takeover of the city, the European Union has put in place a meager sentence of five sentences declaration, promising to raise the issue in our ongoing dialogue with China.
It happened just weeks after 27 European ambassadors to China authorized China Daily, a Communist Party newspaper, to censor an entirely uncritical editorial written by them. Their offense? Having mentioned that the coronavirus originates from China.
And last week, after a videoconference between European and Chinese leaders, the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, could only say that the bloc insists on have a view the human rights situation in China and Hong Kong. Mr. Xi will surely have learned by now that he has little to fear from Brussels.
Such flickering misery expresses a sour truth: Europe is far from united in its rejection of authoritarian Chinese state capitalism. Especially for central European states like Hungary and Poland, a Beijing that is not worried about values is much less annoying than a Brussels that does it all the time.
And it’s not just states that see China in flattering light. In Italy, Chinese diplomacy masks the distribution of masks and other medical security equipment seems to have done its job. Italians now consider China the friendliest country, says April survey. (Germany came last in the sympathy ranking.)
The Germans themselves are not immune either. In one May survey, 25% of respondents said they had gained a more positive image of China as a result of the coronavirus crisis, while 73% said that their opinion of the United States had deteriorated.
The European Commission can describe China as systemic rival. But such a fighting speech is more likely to make German businessmen cry than China to demonstrate fair play. This will not change the situation of German car manufacturers, for example, who do a lot of trade with China and are happy to bow to its political pressure. Daimler, for example, quickly apologized for quoting the Dalai Lama on social media in 2018.
All of this adds to a miserable image. Faced with this, how can Germany build a credible European approach to China?
An episode from the Cold War could lead the way. When tensions increased in the late 1970s between America and the Soviet Union, Helmut Schmidt, the German chancellor, proposed an innovative approach. He offered disarmament talks to the Soviets while also promising to deploy American missiles in Europe if the Soviets did not move. The tactic became known as double track decision. And it was effective: the Soviets finally accepted the peace talks that led to nuclear disarmament.
Fortunately, power today is expressed in trade figures rather than warheads. However, the principles of the two-track approach remain applicable. For the moment, America and the European Union each have an unsuccessful way of approaching China: America threatens to intensify the trade war and Europe demands international cooperation.
The West must absolutely be more strategic. And there is a way to get there: take its two currently unsophisticated tracks, American anger and European friendliness and combine them subtly.
So it might not be a bad thing if the Leipzig meeting between Ms. Merkel and Mr. Xi were to be postponed. If China’s goal is to widen the gap between Western powers, the West may want to organize its own summit on China first.
Jochen Bittner (@JochenBittner) is co-responsible for the debate section of the weekly Die Zeit and opinion editor.
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