Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

2021 German Parliamentary Election Spells New Hurdles for Sino-German Relations

By Jason LPublished January 16, 2022

Cornell Roosevelt Institute
The election of a new governing coalition in Germany led by the centre-left Social Democratic Party is leading to questions over the future of Germany’s relationship with China. While newly elected German Chancellor Olaf Scholz appeared set to continue on former Chancellor Angela Merkel’s balance between trade creation and human rights advocacy with China, the new coalition’s junior members––such as the Greens––are likely to push Sino-German policy towards an era of increased friction over contentious issues.

All eyes were on Germany in September of 2021, as voters headed to the polls to elect a new parliament. Despite polling suggesting a tight race, even the slimmest of gains in vote share among any party was set to have major implications for the direction of policy in Europe. The results represented a seismic shift in German politics; most notably, now-retired German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, who had dominated German politics for much of the past decade, were now unseated from power. The electorate instead shifted its support to a new coalition consisting of the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) and Greens, as well as the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP). One of many actors closely watching such developments is China, which has seen increasingly strained relations with both the European Union as a whole and with the bloc’s members. Against this backdrop, the election of new leadership in Germany indicates a potential new era of tumultuous Sino-European relations. 


Under the leadership of former Chancellor Merkel, Germany took a reserved approach towards relations with China, compared to its more hawkish Western allies. Merkel’s famous pragmatism resulted in a policy that aimed for a middle ground between encouraging economic cooperation, while also viewing China as an adversary; the policy focused on further integrating China into the global economy, so that the West could exert increased influence on China’s record on democracy and human rights. This emphasis on openness has led to China becoming one of Germany’s top three trading partners. However, Merkel has also faced criticism for glossing over human rights concerns and failing to respond to an increasingly aggressive Chinese foreign policy strategy. Germany has been notably less outspoken on human rights concerns in China in comparison to the United States. This juggling act strategy has since had the opposite effect: coupling the German economy to the Chinese economy to an extent where it has limited the German government’s foreign policy options towards Beijing. 


Hence, as Merkel’s reign came to an end and a new governing coalition began to take shape, questions formed over potential changes to Germany’s policy towards China. Immediately following the election, the Global Times—a Chinese government-backed tabloid—published an article expressing hope that an SPD-led government would maintain current policies towards China, especially considering that newly-elected Chancellor Olaf Scholz of the SPD had served as Finance Minister in Merkel’s last Cabinet and had run on a platform of maintaining continuity from Merkel’s governing philosophy. When asked about China on the cusp of his official swearing-in as Chancellor, Scholz pivoted to Merkelian talking points on the importance of a “cautious” foreign policy. Despite this argument, his party appears more inclined to take a more assertive stance on China. In June of 2020, the SPD issued a paper calling for monitoring of China’s compliance with a “rules-based” international order in areas such as human rights, military action, and trade. The forceful tone of the paper indicates the potential for a fragmented foreign policy from the German government towards China. It has not gone unnoticed by Scholz, who has echoed calls from within his party for a “values-based” foreign policy towards China. 


Differences between the SPD’s dovish stance and the Greens’ hawkish stance may cause further internal strife on Chinese policy. The appointment of Greens leader Annalena Baerbock as Foreign Minister under the coalition agreement has major implications for Germany’s China policy. Baerbock is a noted critic of the Chinese government’s human rights record. In an interview prior to taking office, she criticised previous policies as being akin to “silence” and emphasised the need for “tough” responses, singling out the situation in Xinjiang and the detention of journalists as areas of concern. The break with Scholz’s policy preferences was apparent when, on the day of the new cabinet’s swearing-in, the Greens and the SPD publicly squabbled over the authority of the Chancellor and the SPD on the foreign ministry. Considering Scholz’s need for the Greens’ votes to pass the coalition’s domestic agenda, it is likely that Berlin would adopt an increasingly outspoken and aggressive stance on China’s human rights record, pulling Germany closer in line with its Western allies. However, the SPD’s leading role in the coalition, as well as Germany’s closely ingrained trade relationship with China, would also moderate any confrontation from the Greens. Beijing may also benefit from potential political instability created by infighting among the two coalition partners, which would allow it to further emphasise the role of China as a stable leading global power. 


Time will tell if current teething issues in Germany’s foreign policy approach towards China will be addressed, or if it will balloon into further intra-coalition conflict. In the meantime, Beijing will no doubt be watching closely as the European heavyweight charts a new course without its trusted former leader.