Rethinking German policy towards China

Prospects for change in the post-Merkel era
Chatham House briefing Published 26 May 2021 Updated 25 January 2022 ISBN: 978 1 78413 470 9
Image shows workers and vehicles at a VW assembly line in Tianjin, China

Noah Barkin

Managing Editor, Rhodium Group; Senior Visiting Fellow, Asia Programme, German Marshall Fund of the United States

This briefing paper tracks the evolution of Germany’s policy towards China in recent decades, founded on what was long viewed as a one-way economic bet for German business, and examines the drivers of a gradual shift in approach.

Although not all the leading candidates to succeed Angela Merkel, who will step down as German chancellor later this year, are promising a different approach on China, the next chancellor will have a very different set of foreign policy choices and challenges than those that faced Merkel when she came into office in 2005. Under Merkel’s leadership, Germany has resisted pressure to choose between China – its biggest single trading partner – and the US, particularly when it comes to economic matters. Merkel has been determined, too, that the EU should have a China policy distinct from that of Washington. Her successor will have the opportunity to do things differently – and may be pressed to do so by a mix of domestic and external factors.

Germany’s deep economic relationship with China, and its view of Beijing as a partner on issues such as climate, will continue to influence policymakers in Berlin. But pressure is building within Germany’s political establishment and among an increasingly sceptical public, media and civil society, as well as through the hardening positions of some of the country’s closest allies, for a stronger rethink.

Chatham House wishes to express its gratitude to the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung’s United Kingdom and Ireland office, for their generous support of this project.