In their relations with China, France once owned politics, Germany economics. While de Gaulle and Chirac led strong declarative policies towards China, for parts of the 1980s Siemens alone sold more to China than did all of France. While German Chancellor Kurt Kiesinger had rather inchoately shouted “Kina, Kina, Kina!” as his vision for the future, the French thought they could be taken seriously in Beijing. Schröder went farthest towards China, as he did with Russia, while open disillusion broke out under Sarkozy’s watch. France has since diversified its partnerships in Asia, and its former illusions about China have not returned.
The surprise is Merkel. She initially had a very Kohl-like position: engagement focused on business goals, while leaving room for criticism – after all, Helmut Kohl had sacked a state secretary for the mistake of embracing then-Prime Minister Li Peng. Angela Merkel’s room for criticism has become wider – also depending on the political affiliation of any given foreign minister (were this France, one would have written “of her foreign minister”) and on the personality of the incumbent Federal President: none have ever spoken so strongly in China about human rights as Joachim Gauck in 2016.
Who would have predicted that Mrs Merkel might endorse turning away China, as happened with the EU’s refusal to grant Beijing market economy status, the EU’s new investment screening law, as well as new trade defence measures? This remains a real surprise to the French, who had become only too accustomed to being alone and singled out in this type of venture, and for the Chinese, who had decided to take German human rights criticism in their stride so long as business ran as usual.