Opinion

Wunderbar together!

Germans favour greater cooperation with Russia and China. Why Americas love still gets rebuffed.

This is Part II of a two-part series on challenges of the transatlantic partnership.
Read Part I here.

The same Körber Foundation survey discussed in Part I showed that a majority of Germans favour greater cooperation with the two major powers of the East, Russia and China. The numbers however tell us nothing about the kind of cooperation of which Germans would like to see more. Economic? Security? Political? None of these categories can be separated entirely from one another and no one would dispute that some of each is essential to promote and defend both German and European interests. Despite this, there are plenty of reasons to oppose a fundamental realignment of German foreign policy towards the East. 

Germany looks to the East…

Let’s deal with China first. As Germany’s largest source-country for imports and third largest export destination, the People’s Republic has been an essential aspect of the success and growth of the German economy. There is no reason not to maintain the close links that have been established between the two economies, but there is equally a need not to overestimate the economic opportunities offered by China or to depict it as the new bastion of free trade in times of “Neo-Protectionism” practiced by the U.S. For one, Germany still exports more to the U.S. than China and despite President Trump’s rhetoric, EU trade with the States has remained more or less stable. In addition, already in 2011, German business leaders and firms were expressing concern about widespread theft of technology and the difficulty of enforcing patents in China. Although Artur Fischer, one of the heads of the Berlin stock exchange, said that no company can afford to ignore China, firms will inevitably lose knowledge and investments, which would have to be calculated into their prices. Meaning that doing business with China will not come cheaply. 

There is also the matter of the South China Sea, a concrete example of economic considerations becoming intertwined with political and security concerns. China essentially claims most of the sea as its own maritime territory on the basis of the Nine-Dash line, and the Communist Party has been pursuing an aggressive policy of island building and increasing its military presence in the Spratly Islands region near the Philippines. In pursuing it claims, China has been flouting the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea by ignoring the binding ruling of a tribunal set up under the convention. The question of who controls these waters is of immense importance to Germany and Europeans. European prosperity depends on trade and investment with Asia, while the dispute could threaten to break into into broader conflict and jeopardise the international rules-based order (ECFR). It is therefore in the German and European interest to uphold the agreed upon maritime laws and where necessary support U.S. freedom of navigation operations. In short, the conflict shows not only the opportunities, but also the threats posed by current Chinese policy to European interests. 

…to back away from the West

We turn to Russia. The annexation of Crimea in 2014 by the Russian Federation, the widespread reports of Russian attempts at election interference in Europe and the U.S. and the flagrant violations of the now-defunct INF Treaty have in the last few years given the clear impression that Putin’s regime is not keen on constructive cooperation with the Euro-Atlantic nations for mutual prosperity and security. The many facets and diverse issues of European security are far too numerous to be treated in detail within this commentary. It needs to be however emphasised that the security of the European continent is not a clear black-and-white problem, one side entirely bad (Russia) and the the other (US-EU) entirely good. Instead, a crucial argument of those favouring closer cooperation requires analysis, namely that Euro-Atlantic security policy needs to be more accommodating towards Russian interests. 

This argument is especially significant in light of the often informally put argument (heard reiterated quite a few times by the author) that Europe is beholden to American interests. Those who think Russia will not try to impose its will on Europe in the pursuit of its own interests are suffering from a case of chronic delusion. In security and political terms, this could mean surrendering countries like Ukraine and Georgia to a Russian sphere of influence, irrespective of the popular will of Ukrainians and Georgians. On the eve of NATO expansion, the same argument was made about Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic. In economic terms, Russia has been trying to exploit its influence in Europe to skirt European sanctions in response to the annexation of Crimea, as prominent German businessmen with investments in Russia were vocally opposing sanctions against Putin. If Europe cannot implement sanctions in an effective manner and present a united political front, it sends Russia the message that they can ignore international law and there won’t be any consequences. If there was to be more cooperation, what would the incentive be to follow through on agreements if Putin knows there won’t be consequences?

In the end, the German and European approach to China and Russia should also be a matter of values. One cannot claim to be an advocate of democracy and human rights and then ignore the blatant abuses of the latter and the effective absence of the former in these countries. In Russia, online censorship and state control of domestic media are widespread, propaganda is ubiquitous abroad, corruption is a pervasive fact of life and international institutions such as interpol are abused to chase regime critics. China is currently implementing its social credit system, an eerie euphemism for an essentially Orwellian system on control in which not one’s life chances, but even mundane things as booking train tickets will depend on obedience and submission to the Communist Party’s will. In the same vein, China monitors its students abroad to stifle criticism and ensure the promotion of a pro-Chinese agenda. Are these really the kinds of political systems and ideologies with which we not only want closer cooperation but in the end allow to intrude our political systems in the West?

Deeper cooperation with Russia and China will come at a steep price. The Germans should be careful what they wish for.

Image Source: German, U.S., and E.C. Flags Adorn Berlin Meeting Table.
U.S. State Department. Public Domain.

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