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//German Strategy on China – A Critical Appraisal

German Strategy on China – A Critical Appraisal

The Reichstag, Berlin, Germany. – Photo credit: xiquinhosilva (Flickr) / CC BY 2.0

By Stefan Messingschlager | 15 February 2024

Today’s world is unthinkable without the People’s Republic of China. The country’s significance is immense. Over the past 20 years, trade with China has been the guarantor of prosperity for almost all Western countries; to effectively address global challenges such as climate change, China’s active participation is necessary; geopolitically, the country also plays a crucial mediating role. At the same time, however, China repeatedly positions itself outside of the rules-based international order.


Against this backdrop, Western countries have been discussing the possible contours of a revised stance toward the People’s Republic of China for several years, aiming to counter the country’s increased power consciousness and ambition to shape global affairs. In this vein, in July 2023, the Federal Republic of Germany introduced the “Strategy on China,” the first comprehensive concept paper on China policy by a European nation, attempting to address the aforementioned ambivalence in its relationship with China: It views China as a key partner in addressing global issues, as an economic competitor, and also as a systemic rival – especially in light of China’s efforts to reshape the rules-based international order.


After the paper’s initial broad reception and discussion both nationally and internationally, little has been heard about the German Strategy on China six months post-publication. Is it, therefore, just another political concept paper that, although refined over 18 months by a wide range of actors at various political levels, a policy document that has largely remained without effect?


In this piece, I argue that the document is not being given its due if perceived merely as a strategy paper in the narrow sense, which, as has often been called for, something that should outline concrete steps on how Germany could reduce its structural economic dependency on China (“De-Risking”). Instead, in my view, the relevance of this paper lies within the document itself. It represents a significant political positioning with an importance that should not be underestimated, both domestically and internationally – in three respects:


The German Strategy on China as Political Self-Assurance


At its core, the German Strategy on China is a long overdue political self-assurance about Berlin’s political stance towards China and bilateral relations with Beijing. For the first time, the paper outlines the guidelines for a German China policy in the 21st century.


Although there have been foreign policy concept papers from the German Federal Government on the Asian region in past decades (1993 / 2002), comprehensive considerations on how to engage with China as a global power were previously unknown. The multidimensional view of China as a partner, competitor and systemic rival in the German Strategy on China is an attempt to categorize the complex reality of the bilateral relationship and to explicate the structuring conditions of its own China policy.


Supported by a broad societal consensus, Germany advocates for a greater assumption of responsibility by China within the rules-based international order, formulates guiding principles for the bilateral relationship, and at the same time emphasizes the importance of trade with China and the necessity of close cooperation to tackle global challenges.


With this complex multidimensional perspective, Germany not only rejects the sometimes-popular binary friend-foe scheme, creating space for further bilateral exchange based on trust. It also concludes three decades of highly ambivalent German China policy, which—under the occasional guise of the modernization theory narrative of “change through trade” and supported by the influence of German corporations and business associations—had de facto narrowed down to the dimension of promoting foreign trade. The new strategy paper proactively addresses the systemic challenge of a China fundamentally transformed under Xi Jinping: China policy therein is still economic policy, but it is above all also multilateral foreign and security policy.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz at the European Parliament. – Photo credit: CC-BY-4.0: © European Union 2023 – Source: EP

Developed in Europe, Signaling for Europe


Although the document represents the Strategy on China of the German Federal Government, it was developed over many months through close exchange and consultation with politicians, parliamentarians, and academic China experts in European capitals. The paper’s core concept, the terminological triad of partner, competitor, and systemic rival, is no coincidence, deriving from the pivotal EU document “EU-China – A Strategic Outlook” from March 2019. The clear message intended by the China Strategy is that this is not a German unilateral action but rather a contribution to a new European China policy, both in its development and in terms of its defining principles.


As the Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS) has compellingly demonstrated in its assessment of China concept papers by European countries, the European Union is currently still quite far from a coordinated China policy that moves at least in a common direction. However, the German Strategy on China appears to have a certain signaling effect – as the paper has been recognized in the critical commentary of European leading media as an important step towards a more coordinated European China policy. Particularly appreciated was the fact that Germany, despite its close economic intertwinement with China, is taking the lead and assuming foreign policy responsibility commensurate with its size and economic strength.


Thus, the Strategy on China of the German Federal Government at least holds the potential to become a guideline for a new European China policy. The European debate on the German China Strategy was and is a first step towards the European Union increasingly perceiving itself as a geopolitical power and leveraging its political clout in dealings with China.


A New Basis in Bilateral Relations: Sober Realpolitik


The China Strategy not only signifies a profound self-assurance for German politics and a signal to Europe but also establishes a new realpolitik foundation for the bilateral relationship with China. The relationship between Germany and China appears to have matured; unlike before, it is no longer naively shaped by hopes and expectations from the German side. Instead, German politics for the first time soberly and realistically formulates guiding principles for the bilateral relationship with China. Directed at the German economy, Berlin signals with its Strategy on China that despite the irreversible economic entanglement, it is unwilling to let this constrict its own political scope of action. Remarkably, for the first time in the history of German-Chinese economic relations, the German economy largely supports this policy.


Europe is currently realizing that it can act from a position of political-economic strength: The Chinese economy is in a difficult situation, urgently dependent on foreign investments; meanwhile, foreign companies and investors have been withdrawing capital from China increasingly since mid-2023. The strong economic intertwinement with China can serve Germany and Europe as a vehicle to relax bilateral relations with Beijing on several levels communicatively while also addressing critical conflict points assertively. Signs are multiplying that the Chinese leadership has recognized the critical nature of the economic situation and is not only courting investments but also seems willing, at least economically, to move closer to trade reciprocity and address the domestic legal uncertainties that have led to a massive withdrawal of foreign investors. Such measures would be an important contribution to restoring foreign investors’ trust.


However, the signal emerging from this European position of strength should not be confrontational, both internally and externally; it is rather one of a new sober realpolitik: China has risen to a world power, and Germany and Europe have no interest in hindering China’s further political-economic development. Yet, for the first time, the Strategy on China also makes clear: both in trade and in foreign and security policy, the rise and growth of China must occur within the boundaries of the rules-based international order.




The German Strategy on China is a remarkable document: it outlines a complex, multidimensional relationship with the People’s Republic of China, confidently establishing a new basis for bilateral relations; developed in close consultation with numerous players in Europe, it also signals a new sense of responsibility in Germany’s foreign policy, especially as Germany is China’s most important trading partner in Europe. Last but not least, it also represents a national political self-assurance that breaks with the highly ambivalent German China policy of previous decades and outlines guiding principles for a new European China policy.


It is the strong economic interdependence that opens up the opportunity for a new sober China policy that enables the European Union to meet the People’s Republic of China as an economically potent power on an equal footing. This policy of strength should be actively pursued by Germany and Europe – it might even become the central instrument for maintaining peace in the East Asian region in the medium term.

Stefan Messingschlager is a doctoral candidate and works as a lecturer at Helmut Schmidt University in Hamburg, Germany. There, he researches the history of German-Chinese relations in the 20th century. In his doctoral theses he is focusing on the history of China expertise in the Federal Republic of Germany after 1949. He studied history and political science at the University of Konstanz and at Peking University.

The views expressed on this blog are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily those of the SOAS China Institute.