BERLIN — German Chancellor Olaf Scholz is planning to travel to China on November 3-4, making him the first G7 leader to visit the People’s Republic since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, two officials with knowledge of the travel plans told POLITICO.
Scholz’s trip comes as the chancellor is walking a thin line between continuing his predecessor Angela Merkel’s close economic relationship with Beijing — China is Germany’s biggest trading partner, and Scholz is set to be accompanied by a business delegation — while at the same time taking a more critical stance on issues such as human rights or China’s tacit support for Russia’s war against Ukraine.
Scholz will also likely be the first Western leader to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping after the mid-October Communist Party congress, during which he is expected to get a norm-breaking third term as China’s leader. Moreover, the chancellor’s visit comes a little less than two weeks before Scholz plans to travel to the G20 summit in Bali, which Xi has also pledged to attend.
A German government spokesperson declined to comment on the trip. Berlin has a long-standing policy of not officially confirming the travel plans of the chancellor until the week before.
Scholz has repeatedly emphasized the importance of cooperating with China, and one official said the chancellor would stress the importance of upholding international law in his discussions with Xi and push the Chinese leader to take a harder line on Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Scholz also sees particular importance in cooperating with China in the fight against climate change, as he hopes to win Beijing as a partner for a climate club — an idea that he initiated last year to promote climate protection among the world’s biggest economies.
The chancellor has also opposed U.S.-led efforts for a “decoupling” from China, telling reporters during his first Asia trip — to Japan this spring — that Germany “is in favor of open, fair and rules-based markets.” At the same time, he warned that German companies must avoid being “dependent on supply chains from one country” — a reference to the importance of certain Chinese exports such as rare earth minerals for German and other Western economies.
Scholz raised eyebrows at the end of last year when he discussed “the deepening” of economic relations with China in a phone call with Xi and expressed hope that the stalled EU-China investment deal, which had been pushed forward at Merkel’s behest, “will take effect as soon as possible” — although the ratification of that deal has been halted amid human rights concerns.
‘No way of turning back to the Merkel years’
The chancellery is eager to keep the relationship with Beijing in a somewhat positive place, even as the foreign and economy ministries — both controlled by the Green Party, which is hawkish when it comes to China — are mulling further policies to tackle an increasingly assertive Beijing. The German government is currently in internal discussions on its first national security strategy, which is supposed to be published early next year and would also address relations with China.
“I think he should be clear about the fundamental facts,” said Reinhard Bütikofer, chair of the European Parliament’s delegation for relations with China and a member of the German Green Party. “He [Scholz] should focus on making China understand that this transformation of the relationship is there for good, that there is no way of turning back to the Merkel years, and that Germany will shape a China strategy that will push back against China’s hegemonic ambitions.”
Human rights concerns are likely to overshadow the trip: Scholz will likely be the first Western leader to visit Beijing since the U.N.’s human rights chief Michelle Bachelet found that China has committed “serious human rights violations” against the Uyghur Muslim community, stating that such acts are potential crimes against humanity.
During his speech to the U.N. General Assembly last month, Scholz said that “China should implement” the recommendations of the U.N. envoy. “This would be a sign of sovereignty and strength and a guarantee of change for the better.”
On Friday, Scholz said that he found it “regrettable” that the U.N. Human Rights Council last week rejected a push to hold a debate on the issue.
“I think it was very right that there was an investigation,” Scholz said. “Mrs. Bachelet did a very good job, but it was also necessary. From my point of view, it is important to stay on the case.”
Emily Haber, Germany’s ambassador to the U.S., preemptively defended Scholz’s planned visit to China, which is set to raise eyebrows in Washington at a time when transatlantic strategies are focused on helping Ukraine.
“Whether we like it or not: China cooperation is vital when it comes to dealing with global problems. Therefore, we need to engage on the highest level,” she wrote on Twitter.
This article is part of POLITICO Pro
The one-stop-shop solution for policy professionals fusing the depth of POLITICO journalism with the power of technology
Exclusive, breaking scoops and insights
Customized policy intelligence platform
A high-level public affairs network