Berlin Cable

November 12, 2020

China on Their Minds

The election of Joe Biden has lifted the mood in Berlin. While Chancellor Angela Merkel seems focused on picking up where she left off with Barack Obama, one big idea as to what to offer the incoming US administration is taking shape: making common cause against China in the security realm.

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Angela Merkel and Heiko Maas
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There is no Richter scale to measure sighs of relief, but if there were, it would have had a wild night in Berlin last Saturday when, after four days of anxious waiting, it finally became a certainty that Joe Biden had won the US presidential election. While domestic commentators mostly held their tongue, it was Francis Fukuyama, the sage of the post-1989 world that had been so favorable to Germany until four years ago, who somehow managed to best capture the German feeling, tweeting, “Ding, dong, the witch is dead!

The incumbent in the White House, Donald Trump, had long had it in for Germany. He had taken swipes and pot-shots at the country and its leader like at no other nation, friend or foe, in his mostly fact-free, over-the-top, dishonest style. A second Trump term would in all likelihood have meant the end of NATO, and with it the security architecture that had protected (West) Germany since the end of World War II.

However, with the election failing to turn into the anticipated blue wave in the Senate and Congress races, and Trump refusing to accept the outcome, the German joy was still somewhat muted. And with the election coming so close to November 9, the anniversary of Kristallnacht in 1938 when synagogues went up in flames and Jewish-owned shop windows smashed across the country on the instigation of a Nazi dictatorship that had managed to undermine the Weimar Republic’s democracy, certain shadows loomed large. The German psyche had always been particularly aversely attuned to Trump’s antics, his use of Nazi (and Stalinist) terminology like “enemies of the people” against the free press, and his refusal to clearly condemn the racist far-right.

“A Greater Effort”

In her statement, German Chancellor Angela Merkel chose to allude to the “other November 9,” the magical night of 1989 when Berlin’s Wall fell. “We Germans have witnessed and experienced first-hand the important role that the United States of America plays for freedom and democracy in the world,” said the chancellor, who will soon welcome the fourth US president of her tenure to the chancellery.

Not mentioning Trump at all, she also signaled a willingness to meet longstanding US demands. “We Germans and we Europeans know that in the 21st century, we ourselves need to shoulder greater responsibility in this [transatlantic] partnership. … The United States is, and will remain, Germany’s most important ally. But it rightly expects Europe to make a greater effort to ensure its own security,” adding: “We Europeans have long begun to embark on this path.”

The last bit will be somewhat controversial, certainly on the other side of the Atlantic—the word “long” in particular. Yes, Germany’s has expanded its defense budget considerably; it now is around 1.5 percent of GDP, so Merkel’s path to keeping the 2-percent promise made to NATO after Russia’s annexation of Crimea and to be fulfilled by 2024, seems still long and treacherous. (Then again, the percentage game was always somewhat artificial. Depending how badly this year’s COVID-19 recession will turn out to be, Germany may be quicker to hit the 2-percent goal than thought, but only because its economy has contracted.)

Speaking the Same Language

As Biden’s transition team is playing it quite strictly by the book and—with the antics of Trump’s first, short-lived National Security Advisor Michael Flynn in mind—isn’t making much contact with international partners, the chancellery and Germany’s foreign office are still in preparatory mode. There is, however, a general happiness that a US administration is to take office in January that again speaks the same language in international affairs, one that will stand for values, respect allies, and appreciate multilateral organizations like NATO or the WHO.

Banking on her vast experience as an international stateswoman, Merkel seems to operate on the expectation of more or less picking up from where she left off with Barack Obama. With only 10 months or so left in office, the chancellor hopes that, together with the Biden administration, she’ll be able to try and make the world a better place again, starting off with a coordinated international COVID-19 response and a more active climate policy. Also, after the amateurish moves by onetime US ambassador to Berlin, Richard Grenell, when it came to the West Balkans, there’s hope that progress can be made there again in an orderly and productive way.

COVID, Climate, China

The German Foreign Office, led by Heiko Maas, a member of Merkel’s coalition partners, the Social Democrats (SPD), has been more alert to the fact that something new and meaningful is required to offer Biden as a welcome gift. In interviews, tweets, and statements commenting on the US election, Maas has spoken of the need for a “new start” (Neuanfang) and even a “new deal” for the transatlantic relationship. That sounds more ambitious than simply trying to repair the damage done by Trump. In this context, more than COVID-19 and climate protection, another “C” is looming large: China.

“The future of the transatlantic relationship will hinge, too, on dealing with China in the right way,” Maas declared in an op-ed for the German newspaper Welt am Sonntag published 10 days before the US election. To be clear, Berlin doesn’t want a Western “decoupling” from China in an all-encompassing fashion, something that is rightly seen as unrealistic anyway. However, in “critical areas” the shift will be quite pronounced, possibly starting with the German government at long last, if somewhat indirectly, making it clear that there’ll be no role for Huawei in Germany’s 5G network in January.

However, in Maas’ thinking, forging a transatlantic alliance to counter Beijing’s ever-more assertive rise to global power seems to go far beyond coordinating positions on critical infrastructure, trade, or copyright protection. Picking up on bipartisan US demands for a greater German and European role in security, the idea is to bring the EU, and in particular NATO, far more strongly into this transatlantic response to China.

Not Turning a Blind Eye

With the incoming Biden administration likely to deliver on reaffirming the unshakeable US commitment to NATO’s Article 5, which is key to deterring Vladimir Putin’s Russia to Europe’s east, the German government would then be at the forefront of efforts to strategically counter China, in particular in the security realm. Beijing, of course, has long made its presence felt on European shores with strategic investments, influence operations, and hardnosed attempts to divide the EU. Maas’ line of thinking hasn’t gone unnoticed by the Chinese. Chen Weihua, the EU Bureau Chief of Beijing's state-run mouthpiece China Daily, posted, then quickly deleted, a comment under Maas’ congratulatory tweet to Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris that mentioned China policy, which simply read, "The f***ing Maas."

While in its infancy, the idea has certainly gained traction within the German government. Germany’s defense ministry, led by Merkel’s onetime would-be successor Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, is already pressing ahead. According to the Syndey Morning Herald,  which interviewed “AKK” shortly before the US election, German naval officers will be deployed with the Australian navy in the future, and a German frigate will patrol the Indian Ocean with a view to “managing” China’s influence in the Indo-Pacific region, a concept Berlin signed up to in the summer. “We do not turn a blind eye” to China’s behavior, Kramp-Karrenbauer told the newspaper.

However, it’s unclear whether Germany will actually be able to fulfill its own ambitions, as playing a serious part in countering Beijing in the security realm will necessitate further expenditure and further improvement of its armed forces and other security assets. While increased defense spending is supported by Maas and other SPD foreign affairs experts, it is not by the present left-leaning SPD leadership and the wider party. In the post-Merkel era, her long-governing center-right Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU), presently in search of a new leader, would probably also need to find a new coalition partner.

In any case, it’s mildly ironic that European alignment on China, which the Trump administration so heavy-handedly and undiplomatically pushed for, may now form a cornerstone for transatlantic strategic renewal with his successor. But that’s an irony a relieved Berlin can well live with.

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