Sino-German Relationship Could Thwart American Pivot

A Eurasian continental alliance could frustrate America’s “pivot” to East Asia.

German chancellor Angela Merkel and Chinese premier Wen Jiabao visit the Forbidden City in Beijing, August 30, 2012 (Bundesregierung/Guido Bergmann)

German chancellor Angela Merkel’s visit to Beijing on Thursday highlighted an improving diplomatic relationship between the world’s two top exporting nations that could prove a restraint on American efforts to contain China’s rise.

Merkel’s trip was her sixth as chancellor to China. She was in Beijing as recently as February. Premier Wen Jiabao reportedly wanted her to visit China before a leadership transition takes place there later this year and meet Li Keqiang, his likely successor.

A number of Chinese-German business deals were cemented during Merkel’s visit and it marked the growing economic interdependence between the two countries — their total trade volume has surpassed $100 billion per year — as well as their common stance on global trade policy.

The United States began exerting pressure on China and Germany during the G20 summit in Seoul, South Korea in November 2010. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner lamented at the time, “For too long, many countries oriented their economies toward producing for export rather than consuming at home — counting on the United States to import more of their goods and services than they bought of ours.” These countries, he added, would have to “boost domestic demand.”

It was a thinly veiled reference to China and Germany which had both emerged relatively unscathed from the 2008 recession thanks to their booming exports. (Although China’s impressive growth rates obscured the fact that hundreds of thousands of jobs were lost that year due to reduced American demand for manufacturing products.)

The Chinese didn’t publicly respond to Geithner’s criticism that they were somehow unfairly benefiting from American unproductivity. Merkel did. “In the task ahead,” she said, “the benchmark has to be the countries that have been most competitive, not to reduce to the lowest common denominator.” American language that called for a “rebalancing” of global trade didn’t make it into the summit declaration.

Sino-German cooperation has started to move beyond the economic sphere into the area of diplomacy. When Britain, France and the United States asked for a United Nations Security Council resolution to permit military intervention in Libya last year, Germany startled its allies by not only refusing to vote in favor but withdrawing its forces from NATO’s Mediterranean command lest they be involved in combat. As Libya’s second biggest trading partner after Italy, Germany warned that the allies could be drawn into a protracted civil war and should not expect “quick results with few casualties.”

China was also among the nations that abstained from voting on the resolution. So was Russia, another authoritarian regime that Germany has deepened relations with in recent years to secure its independence from energy transit states in Central and Eastern Europe.

Chinese and German opposition to the mission in Libya was more a coincidence than a coordinated action against Atlantic interventionism but reflective of the two countries’ reluctance to interfere in the affairs of other states. For China, this a principled stand for the sovereignty of nations. For Germany, it’s probably more a traditional, postwar preference for diplomacy over military action. The outcome, though, is the same. Both the governments in Beijing and Berlin are critical of Western efforts to stabilize other countries under the guise of humanitarian intervention.

It would be an exaggeration of German foreign policy to suggest that it is strengthening ties with China and Russia at the expense of traditional allies in Western Europe and North America. But there is obviously a shift else Poland’s foreign minister Radoslaw Sikorski wouldn’t have had to warn the Germans in February not to “even try” to attain “hegemony.”

German assertiveness may seem unusual given the country’s strong support for European integration and NATO during the Cold War but the reunification in 1990 marked a return to normalcy for Germany. It ended the parity that had existed between the West German capital of Bonn and Paris. Germany found itself once again in a strategic dilemma as Henry Kissinger had famously described it: “Too big for Europe, too small for the world.”

Morgen die Welt proved elusive for even Germany’s most determined of expansionists and will remain impossible to achieve. Germany is likely to play more of a leadership role in Europe in the years to come, given its economic supremacy, but it is no superpower. However, China and Russia are — or can be. An informal league of Eurasian continental powers that at least passively opposes American domination and requires that the United States maintain a more formidable presence in Europe than they might have hoped to in order to reassure NATO member states situated between Germany and Russia could well inhibit the “pivot” to East Asia that is supposed to contain China’s rise.

Although, as former defense secretary Robert Gates said last year, “The kind of emotional and historical attachment” to NATO that survived the end of the Cold War “is aging out,” America’s military presence in Europe is unlikely to “evolve” to free up forces for deployment in East Asia if the United States are to continue to act as the security guarantor of countries like Poland, Romania and the Baltic states. These NATO members fear a German-Russian condominium that will imperil their interests, perhaps even their security.

A stronger German relationship with China could simultaneously undermine American attempts to contain Chinese economic influence. If Germany, to a large extent, sets European foreign policy, it will be all the more difficult for the Americans to persuade China to lift trade barriers and stop manipulating the value of its currency which keeps Chinese exports underpriced.

American policy should aim at bolstering the pro-European voices in Germany — as it did during the Cold War. There is considerable pushback within the country to its newfound friendships with undemocratic regimes. The former Green party foreign minister Joschka Fischer told Der Spiegel last year that “the lack of fundamental convictions” on the part of Merkel’s administration irked him. He described Germany’s role in the Libyan intervention as “perhaps the biggest foreign policy debacle since the founding of the Federal Republic of Germany.”

Our supreme interest should be holding tight to our anchoring as part of the West. In doing so, something that is paramount — and, indeed, essential — is finishing the process of European unification.

Former chancellor Helmut Kohl, Merkel’s mentor, similarly lamented the rising Euroskepticism in Germany, insisting, in May of last year, that “Germany’s future is with its neighbors.”

As early as 2007, a policy paper from Merkel’s own Christian Democratic party deprecated German policy in East Asia as “too business-centric and too China-centric.”

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, there has been ample debate about the future of the Atlantic alliance. With the rise of China and resurgence of Russia as a great power, it seems at least the latter two objectives for NATO as the organization’s first secretary general, Lord Ismay, formulated them in 1949 still hold: “to keep the Russians out, the Americans in and the Germans down.” That will be all the more difficult if the Germans find a partner in China to counter American policy on the global stage.


  1. Mr. Ottens essay is quite naive, and desinformative as usual. We all know what Ismay said and is no longer valid, fortunately, the same applies with the absurd example of Joschka Fischer one of the worst Foreign ministers Germany’s ever had, therefore Germany doesn’t have to follow what Geithner said, because is not a vassal of the US anymore, and to obey the american wishes to fight in Libya. Germans must look elsewere for their benefit; the new association with Russia and China is very understandable and interesting, in spite of the Poles uproar.
    The game today concerns geopolitical interests of each country, looking for their own interests, and not for third party interests; Germany has natural allies, as the Baltic countries, which will benefit for what Germany is doing globally.
    This German government attitude started not today, but just after WWII with a very careful planning, and a lot of patience; the main boosting came with the reunification of Germany, and the bomb that went off last tuesday, was and is a reminder of how they were treated, creating a new kind of German pride, not expected by the french or the english or the americans.
    The bottom line is if you want German money, then you have to follow German rules; this view you can extrapolate it to any other field, because Germany doesn’t wash other countries dirty laundry any more.

  2. Koldo, I quite agree with you so I’m not sure why you think my piece is naive or misinformed?

    Note that when I write that the United States “should” do something, I don’t mean that in any moral sense, I’m not picking sides; that’s simply a reflection of American interests. Maybe that created some confusion?

    In any event, thanks for reading!

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