Germany’s Greens have advocated for a more principled approach to Beijing for years. As they prepare for a return to power in a post-Merkel government, they are promising to reshape China policy.
Spring 2023 Issue: The China Challenge
Last December, when Chancellor Angela Merkel was pushing the European Union to conclude an investment deal with China, forceful pushback came from only one political party in Germany—the Greens.
In a rare moment of drama in the Bundestag, Greens lawmaker Margarete Bause pressed Merkel to explain her hurried push for the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) at a time when China was suppressing the Uighurs in Xinjiang and crushing democracy in Hong Kong. Merkel offered a few lines in response about the need to remain in dialogue with China’s leaders and strike a balance between values and interests. Two weeks later, she signed off on the investment deal in a videoconference with President Xi Jinping. Beijing had refused to make any binding commitments to end forced labor, and within days of the deal, it rounded up 55 pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong in a series of dawn raids.
At a time when other major democracies are pushing back against an increasingly assertive, authoritarian China, Merkel has clung to a policy of engagement in which short-term economic interests have often seemed to trump values and broader geopolitical considerations. Her push for the CAI, an agreement whose passage is now in doubt following China’s decision to sanction the very European lawmakers who will need to approve it, is emblematic of this approach.
The Greens, a party that has put human rights at the center of their foreign policy, could take Germany’s China policy in a new direction if they end their own 16-year spell in opposition following a federal election on September 26. Members of the party—from Bause and European parliamentarian Reinhard Bütikofer to co-leaders Annalena Baerbock and Robert Habeck—have been among the fiercest critics in German politics of Merkel’s approach to China. They are promising a shift—in tone and substance—if they return to power later this year.
On the Way Up
The chances of that look good, six months before Germany votes. A poll in late March put the Greens just four percentage points behind Merkel’s center-right CDU/CSU, whose support has slumped in recent months due to a series of corruption scandals, anger over the government’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis, and a lack of enthusiasm for Armin Laschet, the candidate poised to lead them into the election.
With momentum following strong showings in two regional German elections in mid-March, the Greens appear to have several paths to power. They could pair with Merkel’s conservative bloc, most likely as junior partner, in a so-called “Black-Green” coalition. Or they could emerge as top dog in a three-way coalition that would include the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) and either the liberal Free Democrats (FDP) or far-left Linke party.
I spoke to over half a dozen leading Greens in Berlin and Brussels about the party’s approach to China and how they might shape China policy were they to be part of the next government. It is an issue that has taken on added urgency, with a new US administration gearing up for “extreme competition” with China and Europe embroiled in a tense standoff with Beijing. In anticipation of a possible shift from opposition to government, Greens party members have been discussing their stance on China in a series of informal workshops organized by the Heinrich Böll Stiftung, a political foundation with close links to the party.
Cooperation with Biden
All of the members I spoke with said they believed that Germany must be prepared to make economic sacrifices in pursuit of a more robust, joined-up European strategy. Many voiced support for close cooperation with the Biden administration and other democratic allies to push back against Beijing’s economic coercion and human rights violations. But they were also realistic about their ability to reshape a German approach to China that is driven as much by structural as political factors.
"If the Greens are part of the next government, it will come down to ensuring that the rivalry, the competitive aspects of the relationship with China are part of the next coalition agreement,” said Barbara Unmüßig, president of the Böll Stiftung and a key figure in the party’s efforts to articulate a foreign policy vision.
“You can't dictate what the policy will look like in detail, but you can give an orientation, a framing. You can create new structures, you can signal that you want a ‘whole of government’ approach to China,” she said.
Tibet and Tiananmen
The German Greens trace their origins to the anti-Vietnam war protests of the 1970s and the campaign to remove US cruise missiles from West German soil in the 1980s. But they also have a history of speaking out on human rights in China. Petra Kelly, one of the party’s founding members, was a fierce supporter of Tibet and close friend of the Dalai Lama. The Greens were strong backers of the European Union’s arms embargo on China following the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 and fought Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder’s attempts to lift that embargo in the early 2000s, when the party was in coalition with his Social Democrats.
In 2012, the Greens became the first party in the German Bundestag to publish a strategy paper on China. This was a different time—before President Xi Jinping took China in a more overtly authoritarian direction and signaled global ambitions with his Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and Made in China 2025 strategy. But the paper made recommendations that remain highly relevant today.
Entitled “Towards a More Coherent China Policy”, it faults German ministries for pursuing their own agendas on China and urges Berlin to adopt a “whole of government” approach by naming a coordinator for China policy. It urges Germany to develop closer ties with other democratic countries in Asia, like Japan, South Korea, and India. And it criticizes the German government for prioritizing its own interests at the expense of a European approach to China.
“Many of the problems that we highlighted a decade ago in this paper have only gotten bigger on Merkel’s watch,” Viola von Cramon, lead author of the 2012 paper and now an MEP, told me.
Greens lawmakers updated that paper in 2016, giving it more teeth. And they have continued to press the Merkel government on its China policy in recent years. In a parliamentary motion filed in 2018, the Greens became the first party to challenge the government’s position that it had no legal basis for excluding Chinese suppliers like Huawei from the German 5G network. In separate motions, the party has forced the government to divulge details about Confucius Institutes and Chinese influence campaigns in Germany.
There is not perfect unity in the party on China. Jürgen Trittin, a veteran lawmaker who sits on the Bundestag’s foreign affairs committee and remains an influential figure in the Greens, rarely criticizes China without also taking a swipe at the United States. He views Huawei, he told me, as a “hostage” in the US campaign to curtail Chinese power.
Others see China through the prism of the party’s signature issue: climate change. Still, few party members I spoke to supported the idea of a more conciliatory approach to Beijing in order to secure its cooperation in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. "I don’t see any reason why we should soft pedal in other areas like human rights because we need China on climate,” Bause said. “The Chinese government is pursuing climate policies because it is in their own interests to do so. There is no reason to think they will behave differently if we adopt a softer approach.”
How Berlin positions itself on China in the post-Merkel era will have major implications for Europe’s course in the years to come. The stance of the next German government could therefore be crucial in determining whether US President Joe Biden’s push to rally a coalition of democracies to confront Beijing proves a success—or failure.
A new government could face a range of difficult decisions in its first months, including whether to boycott the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, whether to press ahead with ratification of the EU-China investment agreement, and how far to go in restricting the role of Huawei in Germany’s 5G network. It may also be forced to respond to further actions by Beijing in Hong Kong and possibly Taiwan. China has made clear in recent weeks that it will not hesitate to hit western companies if their governments criticize its policies.
“Moral clarity in foreign policy is fine when you’re in the opposition. But in government, it has real consequences,” said a veteran German diplomat who expressed doubts about whether the Greens would be able to implement their foreign policy vision once in power.
Franziska Brantner, a lawmaker who speaks for the Greens on European issues, said, however, that Berlin needed to wake up to a new geopolitical reality. “Germans tend to hold back whenever they see a threat to exports of the German car industry. That may have been understandable in past decades when Germany could trade with all and security was provided by others. But those days are over—even if it’s hard for many Germans to admit it,” she said.
Unmüßig acknowledged the challenge: “It’s easy to say we have a values-based foreign policy. But what does that mean in concrete terms?"
Much will depend on the composition of the next government. In a “Black-Green” partnership, the Greens could face resistance from business-friendly elements in the CDU/CSU to any policies that might hurt the interests of German companies like Volkswagen, Siemens, or BASF, all of which have a big presence in China.
Laschet, the new leader of the CDU, has made clear that he is no fan of what he calls “feel-good moralizing” in foreign policy. Still, once Merkel is gone, the influence of other CDU members who have advocated a tougher China line, like Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer or Norbert Röttgen, chairman of the foreign affairs committee, could grow.
Speeding Things Up
If the Greens end up as senior partner in a three-way coalition, Baerbock or Habeck would presumably be sitting in the chancellery, with greater flexibility to shape policy. In their party program, released in March, the Greens called for closer European and transatlantic cooperation on China and denounced “glaring human rights abuses” in Xinjiang, Tibet, and Hong Kong.
Reinhard Bütikofer, who now finds himself on a Chinese sanctions list along with other European lawmakers, believes German policy toward China is headed in a new direction regardless of whether his party ends up in government. Remove Merkel from the equation, he says, and Berlin will soon coalesce around a tougher line. “This sanctions conflict won’t change the trajectory, it will only speed things up,” he said.
Noah Barkin is managing editor of Rhodium Group and Senior Visiting Fellow in the German Marshall Fund’s Asia program.