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European-Chinese Relations Remain Contentious but Pragmatic

Richard Weitz

Developments during the past month suggest that relations between China and major European governments will remain problematic for the next few years. Chinese and European officials have engaged in disputes on several important issues that could prove difficult to resolve. Nevertheless, the governments of China and Europe also share important interests that should limit the impact of these conflicts.

Many of the differences between China and Europe became apparent during German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s three-day visit to China at the end of August. The itinerary for Merkel’s second trip to China as chancellor included stays in Beijing and Nanking. In Beijing, she held talks with President Hu Jintao, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, and other Chinese officials.

As head of both the G-8 as well as Europe’s largest economy, Merkel represents Beijing’s most important commercial and political partner in Europe. From Berlin’s perspective, China has surpassed Japan as Germany’s most significant economic relationship in Asia. In global terms, however, China will soon overtake Germany as the world’s third largest economy after the United States and Japan—sharpening the competitive undertones of their relationship.

As in previous encounters, Merkel made climate change an important issue in her discussions with Chinese leaders. By many estimates, China will soon surpass, if it has not already done so, the United States as the leading source of greenhouse gas emissions, a major cause of global warming. The Kyoto Protocol does not require China, classified under the accord as a developing country, to meet mandatory emission reduction goals.

Chinese leaders told Merkel that, despite their sincere desire to reduce environmental pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, they would not implement measures solely for these purposes if doing so would curb China’s economic development. Wen argued that, “The Chinese wish, like all people, for blue skies, green hills and clear water,” but China “has taken part of the responsibility for climate change for only 30 years, while industrial countries have grown fast for the last 200 years.”

Although Germany and other European governments affirm their support for the one-China principle, which interprets the island nation of Taiwan as an integral territorial component of mainland China, EU members have retained an embargo on weapons sales to China since the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989. American, Japanese, and Taiwanese officials have lobbied the EU to retain the ban in order to prevent a resumption of European weapons sales from destabilizing Asia’s complex military balances.

Without highlighting Tiananmen, Merkel spoke with several independent human rights activists during talks devoted to the state of media freedoms in China. The Chancellor also told reporters that China’s human rights policies would come under increasing scrutiny as Beijing prepared to host next summer’s Olympic Games.

Some German civil rights activists have called for boycotting the games given Beijing’s support of the Sudanese government. China buys oil from and sells weapons to the government in Khartoum, whose members have been linked to policies that have resulted in mass deaths and dislocations in the rebellious Sudanese region of Darfur. In a pre-departure press conference, Merkel observed that, “China has very close relations with Africa, and we naturally will speak about how we can combat terrible human rights violations in Sudan, in the Darfur region.”

Merkel also signaled her determination to continue pressing China on human rights issues recently by becoming the first German chancellor to meet with the Dalai Lama, the exiled spiritual leader of Tibet. In late September, Merkel hosted the Dalai Lama in Berlin despite prior Chinese warnings that it “resolutely opposes” meetings between the Dalai Lama and “officials of any country.” Beijing responded by canceling high-level meetings between German and Chinese officials, including a planned encounter between the two countries’ foreign ministers during the opening of the U.N. General Assembly in New York.

German manufacturers and policymakers have long complained that the Chinese government has taken insufficient measures to protect their intellectual property rights. DaimlerChrysler and BMW are both pursuing legal action against Chinese automobile factories for allegedly copying German car designs in producing their own models.

More recently, EU regulators have become concerned that Chinese exporters have resorted to unsafe commercial practices that compromise product safety in order to increase their profit margins. Merkel said that, while all countries have a “right to development,” they “need to respect the rules of the game” established for international commerce. Germany and other EU governments have warned that they might ban the sale of certain Chinese products if China failed to ensure that they meet EU standards.

Recent media revelations that China-based hackers may have been responsible for infecting foreign computers with spying programs have caused an even greater rift in Chinese-European relations. Immediately before Merkel left for China, the German magazine Der Spiegel published a story alleging that programmers operating out of China had placed espionage software on computers at the German Foreign Ministry, the Ministry of Economics, and the Ministry of Research and Development as well as on computers used by Merkel’s own Chancellery office. The alleged Trojan horse programs capture information from their host computers and transmit the data to external users.

German experts believe that the immense scale of the Internet espionage operations means that they could not have occurred without the knowledge, and most likely the tacit support, of the Chinese government or military. Although denying any state involvement in the hacking, Wen pledged to work with Germany and other governments to counter computer crime, which he and other Chinese officials claim has targeted Chinese entities as well. Chinese representatives subsequently complained that other governments were ignoring their calls for increased international cooperation against cyber threats.

Although the spy scandal has aroused alarm about the activities of Chinese companies and students based in Germany, Merkel and other German government representatives affirmed their continued interest in cooperating with Chinese experts in such fields as environmental management, energy efficiency, and global governance. Many German companies, like those in other Western countries, seem prepared to overlook China’s dubious treatment of commercial and human rights in view of the potentially large profits they could earn through involvement with the enormous Chinese market. At least two dozen German business leaders accompanied Merkel on her visit.

German leaders also believe that engaging China as a responsible international stakeholder is essential for addressing major world challenges. When Merkel spoke in Tokyo a few days after leaving Beijing, she told her audience that “resolving global challenges require involvement of countries such as China and India—each of which has more than 1 billion people.”

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