Oct 31, 2022 - World

Concerns mount over German Chancellor Scholz's upcoming trip to China

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz at a meeting in Berlin

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz is scheduled to visit China this week. Photo: Abdulhamid Hosbas/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz's visit to China later this week could trigger fierce backlash at home, analysts told Axios.

Why it matters: Scholz's trip on Friday with a delegation of business leaders will make him the first EU leader to visit the Asian country since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. The visit will also come less than two weeks after Chinese President Xi Jinping secured a historic third term in office.

  • The trip could send a confusing signal about how Europe's largest economy plans to deal with Beijing, especially as other EU countries increasingly toughen their stances on China, analysts say.

State of play: Scholz's predecessor, Angela Merkel, had close economic ties with Beijing. China was Germany's top trading partner over the last six years, with bilateral trade reaching $245 billion last year.

  • But 84% of Germans would like the country to reduce economic ties with China, according to a recent poll by German public service broadcaster ZDF.
  • "Germany made a big bet on China," says Noah Barkin, a managing editor of Rhodium Group's China practice. "For many years, this was seen as a source of strength. Now it has become a vulnerability."

Details: Scholz will urge Beijing to open up its market and raise human rights concerns while in China, a German government spokesperson said last Friday, per Reuters.

  • The spokesperson added that Berlin was against "decoupling" from China's economy.
  • Scholz will travel with a group of business leaders, including the chief executives of Volkswagen and BASF, Reuters reports.
  • China's foreign ministry said last week that the visit comes at the invitation of Chinese Premier Li Keqiang.

What they're saying: "It feels at the moment that the Chancellory is specifically trying to maintain a certain traditional framework and economic ties with China, in the teeth of pretty sweeping opposition from...the public, most of his coalition and increasingly other parts of Europe as well," says Andrew Small, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund (GMF).

  • "It's a point of continuity with [former German Chancellor Angela] Merkel in this kind of view that Germany should be careful, look out for its own economic interests, and ignore everything else that's going on," he tells Axios.

The big picture: Germany has been hard hit by the war in Ukraine after Russia cut its gas supply to Europe. With a recession looming, analysts said Scholz can't afford to jeopardize Germany's economic relationship with China.

  • But at the same time, Berlin could become a weak link in the "wider systemic rivalry" between the West and China, especially as other European countries move away from China, Small says.
  • Other EU countries, including Estonia and Latvia have criticized the planned trip, saying such unilateral diplomacy could detract from the bloc's desire to speak to China with a "single voice."

What to watch: Small said he's watching whether China will send conciliatory messages to Germany to start repairing a spiraling relationship with the EU.

  • Barkin said he's watching the public messages Scholz will send China on issues important to the EU, such as the Russia-Ukraine war, Taiwan and human rights.
Go deeper