By Jian Junbo
LONDON - German Chancellor Angela Merkel's two-day visit to China last week came amid significant advances in cooperation, despite differences on issues such as Iran.
As Chinese President Hu Jintao said during his meeting with Merkel last Friday, her visit strengthens "trust and understanding" between the two countries.
The timing of Merkel's trip also symbolizes how the countries attach great importance to warming relations. China is the first country Merkel has visited this year outside of Europe, while Merkel is the first foreign leader Chinese leaders have received in the Year of the Dragon.
When meeting Hu, Merkel noted that Germany was holding a Chinese Year of Culture, and that China was the country's partner nation at this year's Hanover Messe trade fair.
In a separate meeting with the Merkel on Thursday, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao announced that China might contribute to the eurozone rescue fund, though he gave no specific monetary commitment. "China is investigating and evaluating ways through the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to be more deeply involved in solving the European debt problem via European Stability Mechanism/European Financial Stability Facility channels," said Wen at a press conference with Merkel.
Merkel's China visit is the latest in numerous official exchanges over the past two years. The frequency with which officials shuttle between Beijing and Berlin highlights that relations between the world's largest exporter nations have never been closer, nor have the two held so many shared interests.
Beijing apparently sees its warming ties with Germany, a leader of the eurozone economy, as key towards deepening its relations with the EU. It's no coincidence that Wen announced China's possible European assistance during Merkel's visit.
Before she left for China, Merkel noted that her administration was currently working on implementing the cooperation agreements between the two countries ranging from technology and economy to rule of law and agricultural technology. In Beijing, she said at the Chinese Academy of Social Science, "Today we can talk about a strategic cooperative partnership because we have so close cooperation. Today I come here because I hope to strengthen this cooperation."
Just three weeks before Merkel's China trip, the fifth since she took the office in 2005, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi was in Berlin for the second round of Sino-German Foreign Ministers' strategic dialogue. There he said:
Today's World is changing radically. The international society must pay more attention to cooperation and development. Although Europe is encountering temporary difficulties, it's still one of important powers in international society. China and Germany keep cooperation, and their influences are rising in international affairs. Both should grasp the international situation and the rare chances for future development of bilateral relations to continuously promote the long-term and stable development of the two countries' strategic partnership.The strategic dialogue, whose first round was held in Beijing in April last year, is only of the top level exchanges currently underway between the countries.
In January 2011, Chinese Vice Prime Minister Li Keqiang, tipped to replace Wen Jiabao as the premier in early 2013, visited Berlin. German Vice Chancellor and Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle visited Beijing in March-April of last year. It is readily apparent that Sino-German relations are now in pretty good shape after reaching a low point in 2008.
China's relations with Germany chilled almost to freezing point in 2008 when Merkel met with the Dalai Lama - the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader - in 2007. Berlin also offered its indirect support to the Free Tibet Movement and boycotted the opening ceremony of the Beijing Summer Olympic Games in 2008 over Beijing's support of Sudan's regime, which Berlin accused of genocide.
The fallout came after Merkel had paid a state visit to China in 2007 which boosted hopes of rosy China-German relations as in eras of former chancellors Helmut Kohl and Gerhard Schroeder. However, she resorted to "value-oriented" diplomacy based on her party's Asia strategic report in October 2007.
Beijing saw Merkel's meeting with the Dalai Lama and her administration's moves as hostile and, in reaction, canceled or postponed a series of bilateral exchanges, meetings and dialogues. Relations did not return to normal until Merkel made fence-mending remarks on the sideline of the Asia-European summit in Beijing in October 2008.
Chinese-German relations gradually returned to normal, and now it seems that Berlin is Beijing's informal ally in Europe - especially in international affairs - while Beijing is Berlin's strategic ally in Asia.
This evolution in the two countries' relations has come without any change in administrations, illustrating that these two countries have found common ground despite Berlin not abandoning its "value-oriented" Asia Strategy.
There are several practical reasons behind these advances in the Sino-German "strategic partnership".
The most important is perhaps economic ties and common financial interests. Bilateral trade volume between China and Germany is expected to reach US$160 billion this year, up from last year's US$142 billion, and makes up one third of China's total trade volume with the EU. That underlines how the two countries become even more dependent on each other's market, especially during a global economic recession and when the EU is suffering through its debt crisis.
As the EU takes 60% of Germany's exports, Germany as an export-oriented economy has had to seek out new markets. China has naturally become an ideal destination for German products. Germany is also an important investment market for China, and a significant partner in technological cooperation.
Beijing and Berlin also have common positions in international affairs. Both China and Germany oppose protectionism, which is on the rise as countries use formal or informal trade tariffs to "protect" their domestic markets.
Shared views on other international issues also bring them closer. In March 2011, both Beijing and Berlin abstained from voting in the United Nations' 1973 Resolution which established a no-fly zone in Libya, and in the following weeks, both took similar attitudes toward the US-supported, North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)-led military action against the Tripoli regime.
Similar views on international issues have also led the countries' diplomats to appreciate and support each other, although these stances are based on completely different ideological beliefs. Interestingly, German Chancellor Merkel's was nominated as a candidate of the Confucius Peace Prize, a private prize established in China as a tit-for-tat of the Nobel Peace Prize, for opposing the NATO-led air attack on Libya.
Wen said last Thursday that China and Germany should work together to address the international financial crisis and European debt issues. While China's offer of support for the European debt crisis may be more rhetoric than reality - Wen argued that Europe has to resolve the crisis itself though China will support the stability of euro - China's endorsement is important to the development of the partnership.
It is important that Germany, as a core leader of the eurozone economy, seeks help from other countries to ease the current crisis, since any success would further strengthen Berlin's leadership of the EU. This is of particular significance as Beijing no longer resorts to "divide and conquer" tactics in its European policy - distancing from one European country through strengthening ties with another.
For China, good relations with Germany means good relations with the EU, which it sees as important in the struggle for a multipolar world and end to US hegemony.
As the US implements its "return to Asia" strategy and China is pressured by neighboring countries allied with Washington, good relations with the EU through good relations with Germany can help defeat US attempts to isolate China in the international arena.
While Berlin can benefit from China's growing market and economic cooperation, China can benefit from Germany and Europe economically and politically. In other words, a fast developing China and integrated and strong Europe share many interests.
However, this seemingly rosy marriage is not built on completely solid foundations, with the threat of clashes over ideology and values ever present.
When the EU debt crisis is solved and the West recovers from its current crisis, Europe's "old" criticisms to Beijing over human rights, trade protection and intellectual property rights, may re-emerge and become dominant again. Europe's strategic goal of "socializing" or "normalizing" (read "Westernizing") China will return. It should also be pointed out that trans-Atlantic relations between Europe and US will always stronger than the former's with China.
Additionally, their interests conflict is embedded in three fields of competitiveness- high technology (China is quickly catching up the gap between China and the West) , export market in the world and the resources market (especially in the developing world). That means it shouldn't be expected that China could always keep smooth and good partnership with Germany and Europe without suffering setbacks in future. Their shared opinions and common interests are as many as their differences.
Because of this, for long-term development, China and Germany must base their ties on rational considerations. Letting emotions take precedence in diplomacy can have serious consequences in today's complicated international arena.