What Is China Learning From Russia’s War in Ukraine?
America and Taiwan Need to Grasp—and Influence—Chinese Views of the Conflict
Editor’s Note: This article is part of a series examining Washington's relationship with its allies after U.S. President Joe Biden's first year in office.
Russia’s war in Ukraine has inspired a radical shift in German foreign policy. After decades of minimizing its defense commitments and expanding its trade ties with Moscow, Berlin has suddenly pledged to ramp up defense spending and modernize its military, provide military assistance to Ukraine, and reduce its energy dependence on Vladimir Putin’s Russia. In a speech to a special session of Parliament on February 27, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz described the invasion as a watershed moment for Europe, one that would either “turn back the clock to the nineteenth century and the age of the great powers” or rally democratic countries to “set limits to warmongers like Putin.” In recognition of the challenge, Scholz pledged to exceed NATO’s defense spending target of two percent of GDP and establish a 100 billion euro fund to upgrade Germany’s ailing military. Overnight, Germany’s planned defense budget became the largest in Europe, altering the balance of power within the EU and NATO and potentially presaging a bigger security role for Berlin.
Germany’s U-turn came as welcome news in Washington. For years, the United States has nudged Germany to carry more of the burden of collective security. And U.S. Presidents Donald Trump and Joe Biden both pushed Berlin to abandon Nord Stream 2, an $11 billion planned gas pipeline between Germany and Russia, before Biden’s administration reached an agreement with Germany last summer allowing the project to proceed without the imposition of U.S. sanctions.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine not only pushed Washington and Berlin into agreement on Nord Stream 2, which has now been paused, but also brushed away some of the mutual distrust lingering from the Trump years. Now Washington and Berlin are much more closely aligned on how to deal with Russia and better positioned to cooperate on other major challenges, including the looming threat posed by China. But fear of a U.S. return to Trumpism in 2024 lives on in Germany, making the country’s leaders wary of counting on the United States. Both countries must therefore invest in making their partnership strong enough to outlast Biden’s presidency—no matter who succeeds him.
Few European countries have anchored their foreign policies in multilateralism as firmly as Germany has over the last seven decades. Berlin’s commitment to European integration and to transatlantic cooperation powered Germany’s economic rise, enabling it to become the fourth-largest economy in the world and the economic leader of Europe.
It was little surprise, then, that U.S. relations with Germany suffered during Trump’s presidency. The German government tried to defend international organizations from attacks by Trump, even teaming up with France in 2019 to launch the Alliance for Multilateralism, a network of 88 countries committed to protecting international agreements and institutions. Germany also worked up a white paper on multilateralism but published it only after Biden took office. (Had Trump won a second term, the paper would have looked naive.)
For these reasons, Biden’s victory in 2020 occasioned an especially deep sigh of relief in Berlin. Soon after taking office, Biden rejoined the Paris climate accord and reengaged with the World Health Organization. He also pledged $4 billion to COVAX, the global COVID-19 vaccine access initiative, and announced plans for a democracy summit—all of which heartened Berlin. As Germany’s then Foreign Minister Heiko Maas put it in May 2021, “With the return of the USA to the Paris Agreement on climate change and other key forums of multilateral cooperation, the basis for a rules-based and value-driven global order for the future has improved significantly.”
But not every aspect of the U.S.-German relationship improved overnight. For decades, NATO had allowed Germany to underspend on defense, and the EU to stay out of defense altogether. Although Biden did not bully Germany to increase its budget, as Trump had, and he called off a planned withdrawal of U.S. troops from bases in Germany, his administration made clear early on that it wanted Berlin to play a bigger role in collective defense. But prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Scholz’s government—a coalition of center-left Social Democrats, Greens, and center-right Free Democrats—indicated that it would not meet Germany’s NATO spending obligations by 2024.
U.S.-German security cooperation was marked by disappointments during Biden’s first year in office.
U.S.-German security cooperation was also marked by disappointments during Biden’s first year in office, especially in Afghanistan. Germany had contributed thousands of soldiers to the U.S.-led coalition there over the last two decades—its first use of combat troops since World War II—even as doubts rose in Berlin about the war’s prospects for success. Early in Biden’s presidency, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, Germany’s defense minister at the time, publicly reiterated Germany’s willingness to remain in Afghanistan alongside the United States. But then the Biden administration abruptly withdrew in August 2021, shocking German leaders by failing to coordinate with them or even warn them in advance. Only a month later, Germany (and much of Europe) was similarly stunned by the Biden administration’s announcement of AUKUS, a new partnership with Australia and the United Kingdom that cost France a strategically important submarine deal and underscored the need for Europeans to enhance defense cooperation with one another and make their defense industry more competitive.
Russia emerged as another area of friction between Washington and Berlin prior to the war in Ukraine. Even after Russia’s annexation of Crimea and eight years of war in eastern Ukraine, Germany was still basing its policy toward Moscow on the assumption that closer economic ties would ensure a constructive relationship. The government of German Chancellor Angela Merkel had trusted that Moscow would be a reliable energy partner and opted not to reduce Germany’s dependence on Russian gas. Until the outbreak of war, part of the German establishment even saw Russia’s claim to a sphere of influence in its neighborhood as understandable, so long as Moscow cooperated with Europeans. Prior to the invasion, members of this camp, who blend Russophilia with anti-Americanism, argued that Germany needed to preserve ties with Moscow and thus shouldn’t adopt the United States’ tough line on Ukraine and Russia.
Then came Russia’s massive troop buildup on Ukraine’s borders. The United States shared intelligence with its European allies and partners and informed the public about Russia’s war plans. It also sought to forge a unified transatlantic front against Moscow, nudging Berlin in particular to shift its outdated stance toward Russia.
Initially, Scholz’s government resisted measures such as sanctions that could have deterred Russia or that would have strengthened Ukraine, including arms deliveries. This hesitation sparked criticism from Washington and from eastern European capitals. But once a Russian attack seemed imminent, the German government radically shifted its foreign policy. On February 22, after Russia formally recognized the breakaway regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, Berlin froze Nord Stream 2. In his speech five days later, Scholz announced that Germany would reduce its energy dependence on Russia. His government also promised a hike in defense spending and started delivering defensive weapons to Ukraine, making an exception to German regulations that forbid the export of arms to conflict zones.
Germany’s about-face means that the United States will have a stronger European partner in defense. Berlin remains fully committed to the transatlantic alliance, and, as its decision last week to purchase American F-35 fighter jets underscored, it is committed to sharing in nuclear deterrence. Germany will also be instrumental in advancing European defense cooperation, which made a leap forward this week with the adoption of the Strategic Compass, an EU strategy document and work plan for enhancing European defense cooperation in coordination with NATO.
With a brutal war raging in Ukraine, U.S. and German attention is understandably on Putin and Russia. But the bigger strategic challenge for the United States and Germany (and the EU) remains dealing with China, which for the West remains an important economic partner, a systemic rival, and a necessary interlocutor for managing global risks such as climate change and pandemics. When the United States took a harder line against Beijing under Trump, it found itself increasingly out of step with Germany. Merkel, who visited China almost every year during her 16 years as chancellor, cultivated deep business ties between the two countries, arguing that they enabled greater cooperation on climate change and even on human rights. When Germany held the EU presidency, she pushed for a China-EU investment deal that Washington opposed.
Scholz has changed Germany’s tone on China, promoting human rights more openly and calling attention to the threat that Beijing poses to the rules-based international order. Like the United States and the rest of Europe, Germany also seeks to reduce its supply chain dependency on China while pushing for fair rules for competition and intellectual property. As a result, a common U.S. and European approach toward China now seems likelier than before the pandemic.
Germany will need to rethink its dependencies and improve its defense capabilities.
Germany’s economic model won’t change overnight. Chinese trade and investment still account for a good chunk of the country’s growth, and any reduction in either would compound the costs of Germany’s already radically changed relationship with Russia. But as competition with authoritarian powers sharpens, Germany will need to rethink its dependencies—economic, financial, and technological—and improve its defense capabilities. Its most viable option will be to deepen European and transatlantic cooperation so long as a supportive U.S. administration remains in place. The need for Germany, the United States, and the EU to coordinate their China policy has grown as a result of heightened tensions over Taiwan and the conflict in Ukraine, where Beijing could play a pivotal role—either bolstering Russia or letting it falter. Scholz’s government is set to write a national security strategy and a China strategy by early next year. Both ought to be embedded in a broader European and transatlantic approach to countering China and other security challenges.
Although the war in Ukraine has transformed German foreign policy and brought it into closer alignment with that of the United States, building on the progress of Biden’s first year in office, the damage of the Trump years has not yet been fully repaired. Worries about Washington’s ability to remain internationally engaged and reliable linger in Germany, as they do elsewhere in Europe. The health of American democracy is of great concern to Europeans, who saw the United States emerge from the Trump era divided and damaged. Their concern is not just that Republicans will win both houses of Congress in the midterms, which could limit transatlantic cooperation in the second half of Biden’s term, but also that the United States could revert to an “America first” strategy if a Republican wins the White House in 2024.
Both Germany and the United States must therefore ensure that their revived and solidified relationship can outlast not just Biden but also a Trump-like populist American leader. To do so, they will need to strengthen U.S.-German ties beyond those that link Berlin with the U.S. executive branch, investing in relationships among members of both countries’ legislatures, civil societies, and business sectors as well as the international institutions that bind Germany to the United States. Washington and Berlin must seek to deepen their mutual understanding, in particular by establishing new fora for strategic exchange. Like Russia’s current war in Ukraine, the biggest challenges of the future—whether from China, climate change, or another pandemic—will demand transatlantic cooperation. Washington and Berlin must ensure that their partnership is up to the task.
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