Berlin Cable

Apr 18, 2024

From Beijing to Kyiv

With his second visit to Beijing to see Chinese President Xi Jinping, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz set himself up for a failure. In contrast, Vice Chancellor Robert Habeck, when visiting Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky three days later, had a firmer grasp of realities.

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DOCUMENT DATE:  16 April, 2024  German Chancellor Olaf Scholz speaks during a press conference in Beijing, China, 16 April 2024.
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Was there some hint? A Ukrainian request? Or was it simply wishful thinking, a hope against hope, construed out of thin air?

When members of German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’ circle discussed the aims of his second China visit ahead of the trip, which took place earlier this week, it was clear that there was hope for some sort of a breakthrough. And it had all to do with Scholz’ first trip to Beijing in the fall of 2022

Then, in their reading, the chancellor had managed to push the Chinese to make a clear statement against the use of nuclear weapons in Russia’s war against Ukraine at a critical time. When state-run news agency Xinhua put out a report saying inter alia that Chinese President Xi Jinping called upon the international community to “oppose the use of or the threat to use nuclear weapons, advocate that nuclear weapons cannot be used and that nuclear wars must not be fought, and prevent a nuclear crisis in Eurasia,” this was seen as akin to winning the lottery (a rosy reading of events, in this columnist’s opinion).

This week, Scholz set out to convince Xi to lean on Russian President Vladimir Putin to stop his country’s murderous war against its neighbor. He said as much on X after his three-hour meeting with Xi. “China’s word carries weight in Russia. That is why I have asked President Xi to use his influence so that Putin aborts his insane campaign, withdraws his troops, and ends this terrible war.” At least, China should take part in the peace conference Switzerland is hosting in June, another step in a process that started in Jeddah last summer—without Russia and with Chinese on-again, off-again “participation.”

No Lottery Win

This time round, however, there was no Xinhua news story that the chancellor could point to. Reportedly, Xi told Scholz that all concerned “should be at the table and none on the menu” when nations convened at the Ukraine peace summit near Lucerne on June 15-16. Since Russia has already rejected any participation, China will in all likelihood stay away, too. 

Because in Xi’s analogy, the country that should “not be on the menu” is clearly Russia. The “four principles” Xi announced, while as opaque as the Chinese initiative of February 2023, have a clear slant. They include to “refrain from seeking selfish gains,” “not to add fuel to the fire,” “refrain from further exacerbating tensions,” and “reduce the negative impact on the world economy and refrain from undermining the stability of global industrial and supply chains.” None of those seems to be directed at Russia.

Weak Commitment

So Scholz came back only with a terribly weak Chinese commitment to stay in touch on the subject in “an intense and positive way”—good enough for the chancellor to pin to his X profile. And Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky thanked Scholz for his efforts. Still, one keeps wondering how many “reality checks” German foreign policy requires.

That Xi has no incentive to act as Scholz asked is blatantly clear. And Scholz' trip did nothing to change the Chinese leader's calculus; if anything, it did reinforce it. What’s more, in recent weeks there were growing signs that Beijing is stepping up its support for Moscow. The Royal United Services Institute in London warned in March that China and Russia have intensified their cooperation on 5G and satellite technology. And the US administration briefed only last week that China had significantly stepped up the delivery of machine tools, microelectronics, and other technology, which Moscow is in turn using to produce missiles, tanks, aircraft, and other weaponry for use against Ukraine. The German chancellery, however, seemed unperturbed, conceding only that there might be a problem with dual-use goods.

Other aspects of Scholz’ trip were also questionable. That Scholz joined TikTok, the controversial social media platform owned by Chinese company ByteDance that is under pressure from US lawmakers, just a few days ahead of the visit—with Scholz’ battered, but recently polished black briefcase in a starring role—was pure chance and entirely unrelated, the chancellery stressed; if so, it was poor timing. The business delegation Scholz took with him, most of them from automakers with big investments in China, gave the impression that Germany was continuing to pursue a “business as usual” approach (in contrast to the China Strategy the government signed off on last July).

Undercutting Brussels

Most problematic, however, was that once again, Scholz’ visit had no European dimension. It even undermined European unity. With the signing of an inter-governmental “agreement of intent,” by German Minister for Digital Affairs and Transport Volker Wissing, State Secretary Franziska Brantner from the German Economy and Climate Ministry, and Jin Zhuanglong, Chinese Minister for Industry and Information Technology, to cooperate on connected vehicles, Berlin yet again made a big statement of denial of reality. 

Connected cars are already a security concern. It is not for nothing has China banned sensor-saturated Teslasfrom sensitive sites. In February, the Biden administration announced a China-focused probe into connected vehicles on national security grounds. And only last week, European Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager, concerned by the expected mass arrival of cheap Chinese electric vehicles (EVs) on the European market, floated the idea of “trustworthiness criteria” that might lead to restrictions on Chinese cars and other green technologies in Europe based on data security and related considerations. The German-Chinese agreement undercuts just that.

Plan Ukraine

All this is taking place at a time when the situation in Ukraine is getting dramatically worse. Russian rockets and drones are pulverizing Kharkiv and other Ukrainian cities. One of the country’s biggest electric works has been bombed out of action because there is a dramatic lack of air defense systems. And there are worries that Russian troops may manage to break through at some points along the front. It is another reality German foreign policy finds difficult to grasp.

But while Scholz’ attempt at high diplomacy appeared like ersatz therapy, conjuring a “peace” that relies on making Putin coming to his senses, his vice chancellor, Economy and Climate Minister Robert Habeck from the Greens, acted in a different way. 

Just as the chancellor was landing back in Berlin, Habeck took the night train to Kyiv, also with a business delegation in tow, this time one of arms manufactures and energy companies. The aim of his visit was to explore the possibility of producing more arms and ammunition on the ground in Ukraine and helping the country to set up alternative green energy supplies. “Ukraine fights for its territorial integrity, but it is also fighting for values that unite Europe,” Habeck said on arrival. 

Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock (Greens) and Defense Minister Boris Pistorius (from Scholz’ Social Democrats) have written to NATO allies “and a wide range of non-NATO partners” including Gulf Arab states to plead for more air defense systems for Ukraine. The Immediate Acton on Air Defense (IAAD), they wrote, would primarily seek to procure more US-built Patriot systems for Ukraine (Berlin has pledged to send one such system immediately).

While late, these moves are more likely to make a difference for Ukraine than Scholz’ China trip—not least because they deal with reality.

Henning Hoff is Executive Editor of INTERNATIONALE POLITIK QUARTERLY.

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