Europe’s power players need to tread carefully with Beijing visits

Fergus Hunter is an analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. 

Among the go-to phrases peppered throughout the diatribes of Beijing’s wolf warrior diplomats is that countries are “playing with fire” when they don’t align with the Chinese government’s interests.  

To repurpose this cliché, Europe’s two most powerful leaders, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron, are undoubtedly playing with fire with their planned trips to Beijing to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping next month. 

Some level of diplomatic outreach is worthwhile, of course, as there are important areas in which China and Western powers need to cooperate, while the world lurches into an ever more dangerous and complex era. “Meeting jaw to jaw is better than war,” as Winston Churchill said. Not to mention an escalating climate crisis, which demands stronger Chinese action and international collaboration. 

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These visits need to be handled deftly, however, or they could do more harm than good. 

To begin with, the timing of these upcoming trips is very poor. If the German chancellor and French president aren’t clear and forceful, their visits may achieve nothing other than to embolden the Chinese leader, alienating democratic partners, undermining strategies to build resilience against China-related economic threats, weakening European solidarity, and relegating Beijing’s industrial scale human rights abuses to second-order status in the process.  

Scholz and Macron, who’ve not yet publicly announced the details of their plans, need to effectively convey their messages on key political and security issues to make their excursions are worthwhile. If they are to go through with their trips, they should be going together, and they should delay the visit, so they aren’t arriving straight after this month’s National Conference of the Chinese Communist Party. 

If they do still go to Beijing in November, Scholz and Macron need to understand that by visiting so soon after the 20th party conference, where Xi will have secured a norm-breaking third term as general secretary and further consolidated his autocratic rule — they will look like they are going to kiss the ring. Coverage of Xi receiving his guests, the de facto leaders of Europe, will be plastered all over the front pages of the Communist Party’s propaganda outlets, and the Chinese population will thusly be informed of how the party is “rejuvenating socialism in the world” and how their country’s global preeminence is being established. 

In reality, however, these grip-and-grin photo opportunities will be occurring just as China’s standing is in free fall across the democratic world. With ongoing human rights abuses in Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Tibet; military aggression in its neighborhood; a “no limits” partnership with Russia, Europe’s violent antagonist; and escalating coercive behavior against democratic countries, the Beijing government’s list of misconduct only continues to expand. 

Amid all this, Scholz’s welcoming signal on economic ties, as he plans to take a business delegation with him on his trip, is particularly confusing for both industry and Germany’s international partners. 

Just last month, Germany’s economic affairs minister Robert Habeck announced the government was looking to reduce dependence on Chinese trade and tighten investment screening. “And from this you will see that there is no more naivety,” he said. Meanwhile, Minister for Foreign Affairs Annalena Baerbock declared Germany must face up to risks of economic interdependence and abandon its belief in Wandel durch Handel — change through trade — when it comes to Russia and China.  

Along these lines, many German businesses — especially the Mittelstand small and medium enterprises — are, in fact, currently winding back their exposure to China, and according to a local industry survey, a quarter of Germany’s manufacturing companies are now seeking to reduce imports from the country. Carmaker Stellantis NV, for example, closed its only Jeep factory in China because of growing market interference. And as part of China’s extreme economic coercion targeting Lithuania, German manufacturing companies like Continental have had their market access threatened due to their Lithuanian supply chains.

Xi himself is also driving a decoupling, or “dual circulation,” agenda, seeking to cut dependencies on foreign countries. Growing rules and restrictions favoring Chinese firms are harming foreign companies’ market share and discouraging new investment, according to German businesses. Beijing’s “COVID-zero” addiction is also wreaking havoc.

It is deeply questionable that Scholz is choosing this exact moment to take a squad of executives for a swim in the opposite direction.  

One senses the influence of a handful of powerful German CEOs here, who remain dogmatically committed to the Chinese market and wield enormous political influence — just look for the bosses of Volkswagen, Siemens or some of the other usual suspects in the chancellor’s entourage. Scholz would be far better off taking these highfliers to some emerging markets in Asia instead.

This pressure from corporate power brokers, along with the widening split between Scholz and his Greens coalition partners Habeck and Baerbock, doesn’t bode well for the strength of Germany’s long-awaited China strategy either, which is finally due out next year.  

All in all, it would be a serious mistake if either Scholz or Macron used their trips to pursue narrowly conceived national interests rather than conveying a clear and united European stance on a range of era-defining issues. The visits should demonstrate European unity and resolve, not exacerbate division. And if these two leaders must go to China, they should at least go together, go later, and go without any business players in tow.