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Germans Are Demanding a New China Policy. Will the Next Chancellor Deliver?

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Election campaign billboards featuring the three top candidates for the German chancellery — (from left) the Greens’ Annalena Baerbock, SPD’s Olaf Scholz, and CDU’s Armin Laschet — on a roadside in Berlin, Germany, September 10, 2021. (Michele Tantussi/Reuters) No matter who wins, public opinion and the possibility of having to partner in a coalition government make it likely that the victor will take a more hawkish line.

Oktoberfest isn’t happening this year because of COVID-19, but that’s not the only reason Germans could be disappointed this fall. After 16 years of Angela Merkel’s chancellorship, they will vote to elect a new leader on September 26. The winning candidate will have a golden opportunity to break with decades of weak China policy. Sadly, the willingness of the two leading contenders to do that is far from certain.

Starting with the chancellorship of Helmut Kohl in the 1980s, Germany’s approach to China has been more or less dictated by corporate economic interests. With leaders hoping that the now-disproven canard of “Wandel durch Handel” — “change through trade” — would trigger the democratic shift many sought for China, Germany’s foreign policy has for years hinged on guaranteeing access to Chinese markets for German manufacturing giants such as BASF, Siemens, and Volkswagen. Nothing has changed under Chancellor Merkel, who been reluctant to criticize China on human-rights grounds, didn’t lead on banning Huawei from German 5G networks, and has lobbied for European Union ratification of a landmark EU–China trade agreement. That deal is currently frozen in the EU parliament because of Chinese sanctions on European legislators and human-rights advocates who condemned the Chinese Communist Party’s genocide in Xinjiang.

More recently, Germany has sent a warship, the frigate Bayern, to the South China Sea for the first time in two decades, officially to help enforce United Nations sanctions against North Korea. But it’s hard not to see the mission as responsive to American calls for timid allies like Germany to take a more active role in protecting freedom of navigation in the Indo-Pacific. Not wanting to anger China, Berlin offered for the

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