Sino-German Relations: Why Soft-Balancing Against the United States is Impossible

Christine Cheng is a native of Hong Kong and Macao. Currently, she is a Visiting Instructor at the Faculty of Arts and Humanities, University of Macao. She received Bachelor of Education (Secondary Education) and Bachelor of Social Sciences (Politics and Public Administration) from the University of Hong Kong. She was an exchange student at the University of Helsinki. She also taught in local and international schools, and comprehensively supported research projects at HKU and the Hong Kong Legislative Council. Recently, Christine completed an MLitt Legal and Constitutional Studies (International Law) at University of St Andrews, where she was also an intern at the Centre for Global Constitutionalism.  


Taipa, Macao | November 8, 2020 | Analysis Article

The concept of soft balancing refers to the foreign policy strategy that two or more states cooperate and exert collective power in order to restrain great powers through international institutions, informal coalitions, and economic sanctions. Traditionally, soft balancing used to take place between two allies ganging up against a common enemy (e.g. Russia and China vs. the United States, India and Japan vs. China) (Paul 2018, 1-3). Soft-balancing can also emerge when one partner is a rival of the opponent and another is a traditional ally.

     This article analyzes how China and Germany have responded to U.S. President Donald Trump’s “America First” policy. In the past few years, scholars and policy-makers have argued that Beijing and Berlin could cultivate an even stronger bilateral relation, thus teaming up against the more “aggressive” United States (Heilmann 2018, Zhang 2017). Even though this form of soft balancing looks attractive, this article argues that such notion is premature and superficial. Despite numerous mutual rhetorical acts, no specific concrete agreement or action has been executed to date.

Background: US-China-Germany Relations

       The Trump administration openly labelled China as a “revisionist” power that would challenge American values and interests (White House 2017, 25) and ultimately topple the liberal world order. With that, Trump has initiated a trade war with China, which later escalated into a new technological trade war. Moreover, Trump also criticized Germany for its attitude towards Russia and Iran, and for not meeting NATO’s target that members need to spend 2% of their GDP on military defence. According to Trump’s Twitter post, Germany owed a “vast sum of money to NATO & the U.S. must be paid more for the powerful, and very expensive defence it provides to Germany!” (Trump, 2019). Similarly, German Chancellor Angel Merkel concluded that with Trump, traditional alliances were no longer as steadfast (Merkel, 2019).

      Sino-German relations can be characterized as friendly due to their cooperation in trade, investment, environmental conservation, as well as Germany’s involvement in the Belt and Road Initiative (Kundnani 2015, 108 – 110). In 2004, both states established a “partnership of global responsibility within the framework of Sino-European comprehensive strategic partnership,” which was upgraded in 2014 to an “all-dimensional strategic partnership” (Feng and Huang 2014, 7-9). The key to strengthening the positive relationship is mutual economic benefit, such as trade and cooperation in the automobile industry and technological transfer. Consequently, the European Council on Foreign Affairs stated that China and Germany were in an economic symbiosis and had an interdependency consisting of a “technology-for-markets swap” (Kundnani and Parello-Plasner 2012, 2-5).

  Given the aforementioned context of U.S. – China – German relations, the era of Trump’s presidency gave rise to the possibility of soft balancing between a U.S. rival (China) and a U.S. ally (Germany) to challenge the U.S. dominance within the international system.

The Challenges of Sino-German Soft Balancing against the U.S.

While the strained U.S.- German relation under Trump’s “American First” doctrine seems favourable for a Sino-German soft-balancing coalition, this option seems far from feasible and realistic.

Threat of China’s Leadership in Technology

As a country that is dependent on manufacturing and high-technology, Germany has been wary about China’s growing material power in technological development, such as “Made in China 2025”, 5G infrastructure development, and related-IT security concern. 

For example, according to the Mercator Institute for China Studies, the “Made in 2025” plan contradicts the rules of the free market system and its fair competition principles. China’s leadership systematically intervenes in domestic markets to benefit and facilitate the economic dominance of Chinese enterprises and to disadvantage foreign competitors, which aligns with the concern brought forth by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce (U.S Chamber of Commerce, 2017).

The German minister for economic affairs Peter Altmaier stressed that Germany would not tolerate a “technological sell-out to China”, indicating that Germany had already ratified laws to prevent a foreign corporate takeover. In addition, the Federation of German Industries (BDI) issued a policy paper in 2019 in which China was labelled as both a “partner” and a “strategic competitor. It urged the EU to strengthen its own competitiveness (Federation of German Industries, 2019). The oxymoron of “competitive partner” was also articulated in Chancellor Markel’s speech to describe the German government’s perception of China (Merkel, 2019). In other words, even though Germany has been increasingly confrontative towards the U.S., its position towards China remains similar to that of the U.S. and its allies.

China’s Increasing Influence in Europe

       China has expanded its influence in Europe primarily through two institutions: the ‘17+1’ platform and its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Germany has in fact become one of the European countries most critical for China’s increasing influence in Europe.

First, Germany has questioned China’s true intentions and actions of the ‘17+1’ programme—which supports Central and Eastern European countries, but also seems to be attempting to disintegrate the EU. The former German foreign minister Sigmar Gabriel made a poignant statement that China should respect the “One EU policy”, indirectly referring to China’s demand for other countries to acknowledge the “One China policy” (Europe Online, 2017).  

Second, Germany, like other countries in Europe, has not been enthusiastic about the China’s BRI despite its warm reception initially. Even though China has emphasized BRI’s primary goal of promoting connectivity and enhancing infrastructure, EU members, along with U.S. like-minded countries, consistently view the BRI as China’s main tool to reshape global order. For example, in the European Commission’s new strategic outlook on China, it labelled China as “a rival promoting an alternative model of governance” (European Commission 2019, 4). It can be inferred that such rhetoric has been endorsed by Germany, given its essential role in the EU. Therefore, Germany’s position closely follows that of the U.S, by disapproving China’s foreign policy goals. 

Military Alliance/Security Issues

     Even though China and Germany do not have any major geo-strategic conflicts, one of the main reasons that Sino-German soft balancing is unrealistic is the crucial role that Germany plays in the U.S.-led NATO. It is logical that Germany is unlikely to risk a closer relationship with China at the expense of disintegrating NATO.

Moreover, China is unable and unwilling to interfere with the internal affairs of NATO, as this military alliance increasingly perceives China as a major strategic competitor.

 In addition, Germany has also repeatedly condemned China’s engagement with regional neighbours such as, for example, the unsolved disputes in the South and East China Seas. Germany has supported a number of G7 declarations on these maritime dispute controversies that have upset China. For example, a 2018 G7 communique stated its strong opposition against China’s unilateral actions that provoke tensions and undermine regional stability and rule-based order, such as the threat or use of force, land reclamation and the building of outposts, as well as their use for military purposes (Panda, 2018).

Conclusion

     Even though the idea of a coordinated Sino-German soft balancing has been advocated by policymakers and scholars in light of Trump’s “America First” doctrine, this article has argued that such a proposed mechanism is flawed. In fact, China and Germany have not moved beyond the mutual economic gains from free trade and investment.

More importantly, Germany’s China policy still aligns closely with that of the U.S. due to shared belief and values, economic and political systems, military alliance, as well as cultural identity. Nonetheless, Germany has never endorsed Trump’s “America First” policy. The US-German relations remain severely strained—as have US-Chinese relations. Sino-German soft balancing could only materialize if Germany were no longer an American ally, which is unlikely to occur in the near future. Consequently, Trump’s foreign policy approach is not necessarily encouraging the formation of an anti-US coalition between Beijing and Berlin. While both China and Germany have mitigated the U.S. under the Trump Administration, they have done it vigilantly and unilaterally.


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