Chinese premier Li Keqiang’s visit to Berlin this weekend — the third time in just six months leaders from both countries met — not only underscored the huge commercial relationship between two of the world’s largest exporting nations; it also pointed to a burgeoning strategic partnership that Germany hopes can put pressure on Russia.
According to the Financial Times, Chancellor Angela Merkel hopes Li, who visits Moscow next, “can help mediate with Russian president Vladimir Putin over the crisis in Ukraine.”
“Germany’s top priority is the Ukraine and stabilizing relations with Russia,” Sebastian Heilmann, president of the Mercator Institute for China Studies in Berlin, told the British newspaper. “For Berlin, China has become a very important partner because Russia will listen to it. It’s a new diplomatic configuration that we are seeing here.”
Signs of a partnership emerged as early as 2010 when China and Germany teamed up to block an American proposal in the G20 to “rebalance” global trade in favor of net importers, such as the United States. Merkel, speaking frankly, argued at the time, “the benchmark has to be the countries that have been most competitive, not to reduce to the lowest common denominator.” Her opposition to the American plan gave the Chinese — highly dependent on exports to America themselves — cover to block it as well.
The following year, China and Germany were both critical of NATO intervention in Libya’s civil war. They abstained from voting on a United Nations Security Council resolution that authorized military strikes. While their joint opposition owed more to coincidence than coordination, it reflected the two countries’ reluctance to interfere in the affairs of other states.
Hence, too, their shared apprehension about Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in March. Although China wouldn’t side with the West in enacting sanctions against Russia — it needs Russian energy to fuel its enormous economy — Richard Colapinto argued at the Atlantic Sentinel at the time it also “does not want to endorse the changing of international borders which could set a precedent for its restive regions of Tibet and Xinjiang.”
The Sino-Russian alliance some Western strategists fear looks unlikely then. Whereas Russia is now a revisionist power, China, despite its outrageous maritime border claims in the South China Sea, still says it respects the status quo. The two powers also compete for political influence and natural resources in Central Asia, an area Russia has long considered its backyard.
Whether Germany can drive a wedge between the two Asian powers or at least convince the Chinese to exert pressure on Putin’s regime remains to be seen.
It certainly has leverage. Whereas trade between China and Russia is expected to hit $100 billion this year, China’s trade relationship with Germany is worth close to $180 billion.
The mere fact that Germany is trying is notable. A pacifist power that was comfortable with Britain, France and the United States leading the Western world, it has become more assertive of late. Its population of eighty million and economic strength make it the most powerful nation on the European continent. For the first time in a long time, it is starting to use that power again.