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Germany Courts China

Leading From the Middle

A German flag flutters in front of the Great Hall of the People during a welcoming ceremony for German President Joachim Gauck in Beijing, China, March 21, 2016. Jason Lee / Reuters

Over the years, as relations between China and the United States have grown more adversarial—from maritime clashes over the South China Sea to economic ones over currency manipulation—Europe, and in particular Germany, the continent’s de-facto leader, has been caught in the middle.

Over the past few decades, Germany has grown economically closer to China, often finding itself at odds with the United States, which has implied that Berlin is sucking up to Beijing and being too soft on China’s aggression in the South China Sea. It is true that roughly 45 percent of the EU’s exports to China come from Germany and that Germany accounts for 28 percent of EU imports from China, based on 2013 figures. And the Chinese are not slow to point out, as President Xi Jinping did last month, that every third container in the huge port of Hamburg is a Chinese one. There are also over 5,200 German companies registered in China and more than 900 Chinese firms registered in Germany. The United States is a much larger and more populous country than Germany, and there are many more American and Chinese companies registered in each other’s respective countries. But Germany has a relatively more balanced trade relationship with China than the United States does. It even registered a small surplus of 203 million euros as of February 2016. Meanwhile, the United States has been running a large and growing trade deficit with China since the mid-1980s.

This ever closer German-Chinese economic relationship has come with stronger political ties. During her ten years in office, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has embarked on eight official visits to China. Her ninth visit will take place in June. She will also make a visit to Hangzhou, Zhejiang, in September for the first China-hosted G-20 summit, a meeting of the world’s 20 largest economies. Merkel’s predecessors were also frequent visitors to China. Helmut Kohl traveled there four times during his 16 years as chancellor; Gerhard Schröder visited six times

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