In addition to criticizing Chinese violations of freedom of speech, press freedom, freedom of association, freedom of religion, and freedom of movement, the Social Democrats explicitly called out China for not ratifying the International Labour Organization (ILO) conventions on forced labor and the prevention of forced labor, freedom of association and the protection of the right to organize, and the right to collective bargaining. Greens and Liberals also emphasized their condemnation of abundant human rights abuses and arbitrary measures taken against clothing companies such as Adidas and H&M – the Liberals in particular strongly encouraged individual sanctions against Chinese politicians, with neither party wanting to see Chinese forced labor cotton enter EU markets.
While such value clashes represent the ideological aspects of the tricky relationship, legal and illegal forms of competition are another likely source of conflict. The Social Democrats advocate the reform of international organizations such as the World Trade Organization (WTO) to accommodate China’s economic rise, but at the same time emphasize the need to enforce Chinese adherence to legally binding regulations and standards. This concern also illustrates the mounting distrust of China’s flagship foreign economic policy, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The BRI is of substantial interest to the German economy, among other reasons since its continental freight railroad (Chongqing-Xinjiang-Europe Railway) connects Chongqing to Duisburg, Germany’s (and Europe's) largest inland port. For the Social Democrats, the BRI in recent years has become an instrument to support China’s economic and political aims instead of the development of partner countries and fails adequately to observe the rule of law, monitor corruption, and ensure debt sustainability.
The non-ratification of ILO conventions further adds to the problem of China promoting economic standards incompatible with broadly accepted international standards. For the Social Democrats, Chinese investments in the Western Balkans therefore have to be answered with stronger EU investments to integrate further this region, located on the EU’s doorstep, and prevent the governments there from turning away from the bloc.
The joint statement by the Greens and Liberals also explicitly condemned Chinese intentions with regard to the Western Balkans and Africa to create economic dependencies, increase its geopolitical influence, and support autocratic regimes to gain their votes in international organizations. These party goals can be called ambitious, considering that the economic problems in various parts of the EU – among them the silent continuation of the European debt crisis, the Covid-19 pandemic, and Germany having one of the highest tax and social welfare burdens in the world – are responsible for creating a certain willingness to accept Chinese investments or to sell companies to Chinese firms, resulting in strenuous debate over knowledge transfer to China. Such problems aside, the absence of Chinese – but also Japanese, South Korean and Taiwan – tourists in Europe is contributing to the serious problems facing the tourism industries of many EU member countries.
Linking trade to security concerns, the Social Democrats see no justification for revoking the EU’s arms embargo on China, put into place following the violent 1989 Tiananmen Square military crackdown on student protesters in 1989. Similarly, they consider the exclusion of Chinese companies in critical infrastructure projects, such as 5G mobile phone networks and superfast internet, as essential. In their view, large-scale Chinese governmental and non-governmental economic espionage defines an obviously illegal form of economic competition and necessitates an EU discussion about security and the protection of strategic industries in particular. In that sense, their considerations are not much different from those in the US and other China-critical countries – or the warnings issued by the German intelligence services and the Federal Ministry of the Interior.
Broadening the focus to other East Asian countries, Taiwan constitutes Germany’s fifth most important Asian trade partner. Potential crisis regions in East Asia are not high on the priority list of any German party, whose main focus remains on Eastern Europe, Israel and the Middle East. The Social Democrats nevertheless stated that they cannot allow any unilateral change of the status quo of Taiwan by China or the unfolding of violent conflict in the Taiwan Strait. Germany and the EU have limited military means at hand to prevent or shape the outcome of such an event. But in contrast to The Left (Die Linke), which before failing to meet the threshold to enter the federal parliament was discussed as a possible coalition partner, none of the three coalition parties question Germany’s NATO membership or the US alliance.
Another challenge for the Social Democrats is Chinese control over a substantial share of rare earth mining, required for mobile telephones, electric vehicles, and military hardware, among other products. While they believe that trade of such raw materials should be pursued, unilateral dependence needs to be reduced and EU sovereignty increased by a stronger focus on a circular economy. On the other hand, the Social Democrat ambition to revise and expand international policies on the oceans, outer space and cyberspace is again predicated on international collaboration. Such goals are not unexpected, since both the oceans and outer space are potential sources of raw materials including rare earth metals, and technological advances are opening up new layers for exploitation or at least stirring up discussions about seabed mining, asteroid mining and other projects. Cyberspace, strongly affected by the pandemic’s promotion of digitization, enables trade but also continues to create security threats, such as espionage, surveillance abuse and sabotage.
The Social Democrats’ security concerns also involve the Chinese armament process and the government’s role in settling international conflicts, which in their view have to be resolved according to international norms set by the United Nations and other commonly recognized organizations. For the Social Democrats, however, Chinese claims in the East and South China Sea, strongly contributing to conflicts over maritime boundaries, are a violation of international law. They also see a need to integrate China into a multilateral disarmament and arms control architecture.
The Social Democrats therefore advocate the continuation of negotiations with Beijing in international organizations, since China is highly relevant to implementing the Iranian nuclear agreement and, in East Asia, finding a peaceful solution to the Korean conflict. In UN peacekeeping missions, EU-China cooperation, such as in anti-piracy campaigns off Africa, is appreciated. However, any other form of military collaboration between China and Germany outside UN peacekeeping missions should be critically evaluated. Since actual military collaboration is already very limited, however, the real impact of the coalition’s approach to re-evaluating cooperation with China would be more relevant to educational exchanges.
Collaboration with China in international organizations also matters for all three parties in terms of planetary-scale environmental problems, in particular climate change. While ambitious Chinese targets for carbon neutrality by 2060 are widely appreciated among leading members of the three parties, Chinese support for coal power plants under the BRI received very critical attention, especially from the Greens, at least until the recent Chinese decision to no longer support such projects.
Even though not explicitly discussed, climate change also contributes to economic competition in related industries such as electric vehicles and solar panels. After all, the early rooftop solar panel research and installation boom began in Japan during the mid-1990s, and German governmental subventions for rooftop installations during the early 2000s created a consumer boom that, during the early 2010s, culminated in the large-scale breakdown of the German solar panel industry due to heavily state-subsidized competitors from China. That said, Germany’s Energy Transition (Energiewende) toward renewables also resulted in 2020 in the highest electricity costs in the world, which may not be appealing to East Asian countries.