Germany’s balancing act in East Asia

With a historic ministerial visit imminent, Germany is treading the tightrope between establishing ties with Taiwan and maintaining economic links with China
Illustration by Klawe Rzeczy

By James Baron

James Baron is a Taipei-based freelance journalist

06 Feb 2023

As news headlines go, “Education minister takes trip overseas” isn’t much of an attention-grabber. But it gains some heft when the minister in question is German, and the destination is Taiwan.

When Germany’s Minister of Education and Research, Bettina Stark-Watzinger, touches down in Taiwan, as she is scheduled to do in February, it will mark the first cabinet-level visit by a German official in 26 years. With Beijing increasingly hostile to the island nation, some in Taipei are hoping the visit signals a new direction in relations with Germany.

“This is not just a member of parliament but also the head of an important government ministry,” says Peter Heidt, a Free Democratic Party (FDP) colleague of Stark-Watzinger. “It’s a very good sign to Taiwan and the world that we have a great interest in closer co-operation.”

The trip follows visits to Taiwan by two Bundestag delegations in 2022, and a series of events in Taipei and Berlin aimed at bolstering ties.

“It’s a very good sign to Taiwan and the world that we have a great interest in closer co-operation”

Heidt, who led one of the delegations on behalf of the Bundestag’s Committee on Human Rights and Humanitarian Aid, announced Stark-Watzinger’s visit at a 12 December forum in Berlin hosted by the German-Taiwanese Association. Among the participants was Chen Chu, president of the Control Yuan – Taiwan’s supervisory branch of government – and chair of the National Human Rights Commission.

For all the talk of shared values, the elephant in the room looms large: China remains Germany’s biggest trade partner. Despite Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s assurances that “business as usual is no longer an option” ahead of his visit last autumn to Beijing, a report from the German Economic Institute highlighted Berlin’s growing dependence on China in the first half of 2022.

With the war in Ukraine exposing German vulnerabilities, demand for decoupling has grown. Following criticism from the FDP and the Greens, an investment in Hamburg port by Chinese shipping giant Cosco was reduced from 35 per cent to 24.9 per cent in October. This came after the rejection of several Chinese investment proposals last year under foreign direct investment (FDI) legislation amendments enacted in 2020. In November, limits on foreign risk guarantees were unveiled, with Beijing the obvious target.

Meanwhile, a much-touted new China strategy is imminent; an early draft leaked to the media late last year indicates an end to the Wandel durch Handel (“change through trade”) approach. A pillar of successive Social Democratic governments, this policy is premised on the belief that autocratic regimes can be democratised through economic incentives.

For some, things are moving too slowly. “The German government is only starting now to look at how dependent the economy is on the Chinese supply chain,” said Kwangyin Liu, managing editor of the Taiwan-based CommonWealth Magazine, speaking at a recent panel discussion in Taipei on perceptions of Germans among Taiwanese.

“The first step is awareness, then finding ways to diversify,” added Liu, who has held reporting fellowships in Berlin and written extensively on Germany’s energy policy and business strategies. Citing conversations with German think-tankers, she said some believe Germany has been “a little late” in recognising the danger.

Stereotypes of Germans as excessively cautious pervade discussions of Berlin’s relations with Taipei and Beijing. “It’s difficult to talk about national psyches in broad strokes, but many Germans are averse to change,” said Klaus Bardenhagen at the same event. The German journalist, who has been reporting from Taiwan since 2008, cited stability among the most important values to Germans, and “change is a danger to stability”.

Heidt echoes this sentiment: “Germany has a long history of not being in the first step. We have to face that we have new rules in the world. That’s not easy for our country and our politicians, but we’re moving in the right direction.”

Ambivalence on Taiwan is partly due to Germany’s history as divided country, according to Jens Damm, a professor with the Institute of Chinese Studies at the University of Freiburg.

“Among older Germans on the political scene, even those who are real friends of Taiwan believe we should wait,” explains Damm, who lived in Taiwan for 12 years and is also an associate fellow at the European Research Centre on Contemporary Taiwan (ERCCT).

In his view, there is the perception in certain circles that peaceful unification of China and Taiwan is neither impossible nor necessarily undesirable, making maintenance of the status quo the best option: “In West Germany, people thought things would never change, and suddenly there was unification. If we raise tensions, the victim could be Taiwan.”

For this reason, Damm believes the new China strategy will not contain any surprises. “It’s the Social Democrats and the Chancellor on one side and the [Greens-held] foreign ministry on the other,” he says. “But the Chancellor decides foreign policy, so I don’t think there will be a big change towards Taiwan and China.”

Gunter Schubert, the director of the ERCCT, was similarly pragmatic when speaking at the first Berlin Taiwan Conference last December. “The only chance to reduce conflict is to keep integration at a high level with all the risks, because decoupling bears more risk,” he said. “This does not mean one has to be naive. But separation of supply chains out of a highly integrated economy produces much more conflict than stability.”

Speaking at the same event, Martin Thümmel, deputy head of the Foreign Ministry’s Department of East Asia, Southeast Asia and the Pacific, repeatedly invoked adherence to the “One China framework” – albeit Germany’s interpretation thereof – and stressed the need for “guardrails” in relations with Taiwan. (Unlike China’s One China principle, which holds that Taiwan is part of China, Germany’s One China policy, like that of many countries, merely acknowledges there is one China.)

In contrast, Greens MEP Reinhard Bütikofer, the conference organiser, believes such barriers are adjustable. “Germany’s Taiwan policy has changed in a positive way compared to former federal governments,” he told the conference. As chair of the European Parliament’s Delegation for relations with the People’s Republic of China, Bütikofer was blacklisted by Beijing in 2021 after the EU imposed sanctions to punish Chinese officials for human rights abuses in Xinjiang.

The FDP’s Frank Müller-Rosentritt, who serves on the Bundestag’s Committee on Foreign Affairs and is unabashedly pro-Taiwan, shares Bütikofer’s optimism. The coalition agreement’s reference to “democratic Taiwan” – the first mention of the country in an official document – is a “huge change”, he explained while speaking at the China in the World 2022 conference, also held in Berlin in December.

Müller-Rosentritt also pointed out that Taiwan is even more reliant on Chinese trade than Germany is. “We can learn so much from Taiwan because we have the same dependencies – so we have to support them,” he added.

Encouraging words, but can they yield substantive change? Heidt thinks so. “We can support Taiwan’s entry to international organisations such as the International Criminal Court,” he says, a point he has raised with German Justice Minister, Marco Buschmann. “One issue in Ukraine is that neither side is an ICC member. If Taiwan joined, it would send a sign to China.”

Given Heidt’s position on the human rights committee, and his previous visit to Taipei in that capacity, co-operation on initiatives in this area makes sense. “We have so many human rights violations in China and now we know they are trying to export this to Germany,” he says, referring to recent revelations about Chinese “police stations” operating within the country.

After waging its own human rights battle during half a century of dictatorship, Taiwan is now a “living democracy”, says Heidt. This makes exchanges with figures such as Chen Chu – a human rights trailblazer – a mutually beneficial learning experience.

The journalist Bardenhagen, who has examined comparisons between transitional justice in Germany and Taiwan, expressed a similar sentiment: “This shared experience of having had to overcome dictatorship and deal with the heritage is something that can bind Taiwanese and Germans closer together.”

A talking point for Stark-Watzinger’s visit is co-operation on alternatives to China’s Confucius Institute, branches of which have been closed throughout Europe in recent years based on concerns they are little more than Chinese United Front operations.

Their removal from German university campuses would be welcomed in most quarters, and there has been talk of Taiwan potentially filling some of the gaps by offering Mandarin education or cultural promotion. “This is certainly a good idea,” says Heidt, “and something we should discuss.”