Diplomatic Message China Could be Germany's New Best Friend

Ambassadors to Germany from China and Russia spoke about the different approaches U.S. President Donald Trump is taking. While Russia downplayed the thaw between the U.S. and themselves, China's man in Berlin says his country will be advantaged by protectionist U.S. policies.
The German ambassadors to China (L) and Russia talk U.S. policy in a conversation with publisher Gabor Steingart (C).

Hardly any other country has borne the brunt of as many attacks from the new U.S. president. Donald Trump has accused the Peoples’ Republic of China of stealing American jobs and manipulating its currency. Nevertheless, the Chinese ambassador to Germany, Shi Mingde, remains composed.

"The Americans have cards in their hand, but so do we," Mr. Shi warned in a public conversation with Russian Ambassador Vladimir Grinin and Handelsblatt publisher Gabor Steingart, in an event at the Asia Business Insights conference in Dusseldorf this week, organised by Handelsblatt.

Punitive tariffs against Chinese goods are precisely the wrong approach, he added in an interview with Handelsblatt afterwards. Mr. Shi said that Mr. Trump should “think three times” before moving against China.


Video: China's ambassador to Germany says Trump should "think three times" before taking action against China.


While Mr. Trump sees China primarily as a rival, he seems to believe Russia could become a close partner. The new U.S. president has repeatedly praised Russian President Vladimir Putin for his strength. The two statesmen recently spoke with each other on the phone for the first time.

"The conversation itself was very friendly and encouraging," said Mr. Grinin, the Russian ambassador to Germany, who was unwilling to comment further on whether the two men could become close friends in the future. "It is likely that even Mr. Trump is unable to say what his policies will be."

Mr. Grinin categorically rejected charges by U.S. intelligence that Russia interfered in the U.S. presidential election in favor of Mr. Trump. "That's complete nonsense," he said, adding that Russia is now waiting to see how the U.S.-Russian relationship will develop.

We stand for predictability, stability and free trade. Shi Mingde, Chinese ambassador to Germany

Mr. Trump’s differing approach to the two countries has created a dynamic that wouldn’t have been expected a few years ago. While Russia has seemingly been given backing for its more authoritarian approach, it is China now taking on the mantle of a liberal free-trade outpost for the world.

In other words, China is exploiting Mr. Trump's protectionist policies to portray itself as a voice of free trade.

"We stand for predictability, stability and free trade," said Mr. Shi, echoing remarks Chinese President Xi Jinping made at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, last month. "We have benefited from globalization," said the Chinese ambassador, noting that it is now time to address global challenges.

That includes climate change. If the United States withdraws from its obligations to protect the climate, China will nevertheless continue to advocate for climate protection, Mr. Shi pledged. "We are on the same page with Germany and Europe."

Although China is the world's biggest climate sinner, it aims to reduce its CO2 emissions by 2020 and focus increasingly on renewable energy. Where the Asian power may have resisted such climate restraints in the past, Mr. Shi said China understands now that protecting the climate is in the country's own interests.

"We have paid a high price for growth," said Mr. Shi. Smog has a stranglehold on Chinese cities. "Almost 90 percent of our lakes and rivers are polluted," he said. "People are unhappy."

Climate change and other issues also mean that Europe increasingly has more in common with its neighbor to the east than its neighbor to the west under U.S. President Trump. Germany and China should stand together, Mr. Shi said.

"Everyone is dependent on everyone else. We are a community of fate." Both countries are only at the beginning of a long and intensive partnership, he said. "China is very large. The market is far from saturated," said Mr. Shi. "There are 8,200 German companies operating in China, and the majority are small to mid-sized companies."

Unlike major global corporations, small and mid-sized companies face greater challenges if they want to do business in another country. "China and Germany should both help," Mr. Shi said. The tensions from last year, when the Chinese takeover of robot maker Kuka triggered a debate over protecting key German technology, seem to have been forgotten.

But Mr. Shi also spoke clearly about Germany's problems, noting that the refugee crisis is a massive challenge. "Germany is having great difficulty accommodating a million refugees," he said. At the same time, he added, the focus on Germany draws attention away from the far more dramatic situation in other countries. "We cannot forget that there are still three million refugees in Turkey waiting to leave the country." There are also more than two million people waiting to leave Libya, he added.

But when asked whether China had accepted any refugees from the war-torn and crisis-ridden regions of the Middle East, Mr. Shi became defensive. "These people want to go to Europe. No one has applied for asylum in China," Mr. Shi said.

Still, China is also willing to assume more global responsibility, he said, but only in a global context: A United Nations mandate is required for the deployment of Chinese peacekeepers, he added.


Stephan Scheuer is Handelsblatt's China correspondent, usually based in Beijing. To contact the author: [email protected]