Besonders Eigentümlich Veraltet – Green Party politician Reinhard Butikofer, who was affected by the Chinese sanctions, criticized the government’s policy in China. “Auto foreign policy” is outdated, and so is the idea that patience can bring about change. Germany must overcome its own illusion of helplessness and accept the challenge of a new opponent. Felix Lee talks to Bütikofer.
Reinhard Bütikofer (68) was active in the German-Chinese Friendship Association in the 1970s. The former federal Green Party leader has been a member of the European Parliament since 2009. He helps shape China’s European policy in the Foreign Affairs and Trade Committee. He is also the head of the delegation for relations with China and a member of the German-Chinese Dialogue Forum. His promises have sometimes landed him in trouble: he has been on a list banned from traveling to China since March. The punishment is part of Beijing’s response to European sanctions over human rights violations in the Xinjiang region. Bütikofer supports sanctions.
Besonders Eigentümlich Veraltet
Mr. Bütikofer, no Western industrialized country has benefited as much from the rise of China as Germany. What do you think of Angela Merkel after 16 years as chancellor?
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China’s 16-year policy was not achieved overnight. It’s hard to remember today, but Angela Merkel dared to welcome the Dalai Lama early in her time as chancellor, even though she knew it would cause great resentment in Beijing. A few years ago, a group of European think tanks in China concluded in a study that Mrs. Merkel was one of the few leaders in Europe who also spoke openly about human rights in China. The widow of the successful Nobel Peace Prize winner, Liu Xiaobo . Liu Xia, was allowed to immigrate to Germany after years of house arrest. But Merkel’s policy in China is surprisingly outdated in today’s environment.
He has recently become known as a trusted partner of Xi Jinping, as a politician willing not only to downplay human rights concerns again in favor of deeper cooperation with the Xi regime, but also to go it alone. Only Europe that supports Europe’s position on China can be weakened. Close economic ties lead to mockers saying that Germany has no foreign policy towards China, only a foreign policy of machines, which cannot explain this alone.
Leaving aside big companies like Volkswagen, the German economy is far more critical of China than the Federal Chancellor. It seems to me that Merkel has a great deal of defeat going on. As if the prime minister was convinced that China’s propaganda on an irresistible rise is good, the only option in the end is to make an agreement today or tomorrow on less favorable terms. I think this is a wrong and dangerous approach that risks leaving us helpless in the face of an increasingly arrogant regime.
Xi Jinping’s rise to power in 2013 was a fundamental step backward for China, and an equally dramatic shift exposed great power arrogance in its foreign relations. Early in his term, observers hoped that Mr. Xi might emerge as a reformer. That is an illusion. A human rights lawyer who defended his clients in court a decade ago is now in prison himself. Xi Jinping has tightened his policies on ethnic minorities.
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Xinjiang is now home to the worst police state, on par with North Korea at best. The Communist Party has once again infiltrated every crevice of daily life and increasingly dominates the economy. Xi Jinping has used his anti-corruption campaign to centralize all power in a party-like empire — a stalemate avoided since the days of Deng Xiaoping. For years, Mrs. Merkel’s policy in China was based on the basic idea that thick planks must be drilled with patience and enthusiasm. But the Xi regime replaced thick plates with steel plates. Merkel doesn’t do much with the ax anymore.
It never occurred to me that the idea of sweeping decoupling, as advocated by President Trump, was a sensible prospect. This is completely contrary to our basic philosophy of multilateral cooperation in Europe. We don’t want to build walls. But it must be admitted that China has already begun to disengage. European companies still have no progress in the Chinese procurement market, while our procurement market is open to Chinese state-owned enterprises. China is increasingly dependent on self-sufficiency, disconnection in education, media, IT, rare earth, etc. Disconnection is Trump’s ideology, but Xi Jinping’s reality.
With partners who are ready to turn economic relations into political weapons, one cannot naively say: our sincerity knows no bounds. An example is the expansion of the 5G network, which will be our communication nervous system in the future, especially in industry. I do not want Chinese companies to participate in the expansion of infrastructure, which, according to current Chinese law, must unconditionally obey the security authorities there. This is not a decoupling philosophy, but a simple practical sense of not relying entirely on competitors who compete unfairly.
How do you explain this to a group like Volkswagen, which now gets half of its sales from China?
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Obviously, a large company cannot turn around and say that the Chinese market is no longer interested. But I believe the strategists at corporate headquarters also recognize that China’s long-term and medium-term economic strategy is not based on partnership with the West. It all started with the “Made in China 2025” strategy six years ago. This will continue in the 14th five-year plan, the so-called double cycle. International partners have only one place if they give in to China’s economic and political logic. We should look for new ways, not continue. It is not easy.
In the European Union we have found a formula that correctly defines our relationship with China. That is, as a form of competition, partnership, and systemic competition. The Biden administration adopted this holy trinity. The three dimensions will co-exist for some time. We cannot grasp competition and systemic competition alone. So I think it is only fitting that we join together with like-minded partners to stop Beijing’s hegemonic practices.
The United States pursues its own interests in the competition with China, but asks Germany and Europe to decide which side to take in the future.
The US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, has said several times that he is not asking US partners to do this. But it would be unfortunate if we wanted to pretend that this conflict was not our institutional conflict at all, but only between the United States and China. Institutional contests are about fundamental values such as democracy, human rights, rule of law and multilateralism. The European Union is not neutral in this regard, but it is clearly a partner of the United States, Australia, Canada, Japan, India and others. Although we are open to cooperation, it must also be clear that we will not make any agreement that trades climate protection for commitments to human rights.
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No deal? The international community sacrificed Taiwan to cut diplomatic ties some time ago because China wanted it. Now, the situation in Taiwan is more dangerous than ever. Shouldn’t the future federal government position itself more clearly?
Yes, it must. Incidentally, the European Parliament is leading the formulation of a new Taiwan policy. In essence, this policy is conservative: we do not want to see unilateral measures from one of the two players to change the situation. That eliminates Mr. Xi’s repeated threats of military conquest of Taiwan, as well as the possibility of Taiwan’s declaration of independence. But as Beijing increasingly challenges the status quo, we need to be more clear about supporting democracy in Taiwan. This means integrating Taiwan better, for example by joining the World Health Organization or the World Climate Conference; negotiate an EU investment agreement with Taiwan; and encourage more political and cultural exchange.
When we govern, we govern in coalition. No one makes foreign policy alone. But I still hope that China’s policy in Germany will change.
On the contrary. He knows European politics, transatlantic relations and how to deal with authoritarian regimes very well. “Dialogue and severity” is his formula for building a relationship with the latter. In doing so, he draws a sharper line with China or Russia than Laschet or Scholz, who mark or break too much for my taste.
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And Angela Merkel? It continues to enjoy a good reputation in China. What do you think, after becoming chancellor, he could become a mediator in a difficult relationship with China, like Henry Kissinger or Helmut Schmidt once did?
Merkel’s reputation in China is not as good as it used to be. China believes that despite all the promises made by Merkel, it will not be possible to do what Beijing wants. For example, he really wanted to push the investment agreement, after all, he was still in the freezer. It is less and less able to shape Chinese policy from the chancellor, why should he continue to fail without an office? By the way, I don’t think he aspires to be Helmut Schmidt of the Christian Democrats or Henry Kissinger of Europe.
What is your future role? You have visited and worked regularly in China for decades. Now Beijing itself has been put on the undesirable list.
Of course I will continue to participate. As long as I can’t go to China, I will probably go to Taiwan more often. In the end, I will be 100 years old in 2053, and hopefully it will be in