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As U.S.-China Relations Worsen, Germany Looks Out For Its Own Interests


The relationship between the U.S. and China is worse than it's been in recent memory. Stuck in the middle is Europe. The European Union relies on the world's two biggest economies for trade and security. But in recent years, its relationship with both has soured. And that's forced some EU countries like Germany to pursue their own paths. As NPR's Rob Schmitz reports it has not been easy.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: A month ago, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas welcomed his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, for an official visit. Maas, dressed in a designer suit, looked tense. The man standing next to him had only a day before threatened a politician from Germany's neighbor, the Czech Republic. Wang said the head of the Czech parliament would, quote, "pay a heavy price" for visiting Taiwan. Maas turned to Wang with a stern face.


HEIKO MAAS: (Through interpreter) You will be aware that we Europeans stand shoulder to shoulder when it comes to foreign and security policies. And we treat our international partners with respect. We expect the same in return. And threats have no place here.

SCHMITZ: Standing up to China does not come naturally to Germany. Its largest companies depend on China's market for big portions of their revenue streams. In the first half of 2020, 42% of Volkswagen's revenue came from China, as did 34% of BMW's and 24% of Adidas'. But recently, Beijing's used this market as leverage, with its diplomats taking an increasingly aggressive stance towards Germany and the rest of the EU - like last December, when China's ambassador to Germany threatened retaliation on German companies if Berlin excluded the Chinese telecoms company Huawei from its market. But now, Maas was fighting back.


MAAS: (Through interpreter) In the future, Europe will look after its own interests in a more sovereign and self-assured manner. We will by no means allow ourselves to become the ball in a superpower game between the U.S., Russia and China. We are open to dialogue with everybody.

SCHMITZ: The EU considers China a partner when it comes to trade, climate change and issues like the Iran nuclear agreement. But it's hit a wall in its attempt to try and even the playing field for European companies inside of China. Dagmar Schmidt, who chairs the German-Chinese Parliamentary Group, says the EU also sees China as a societal and systemic rival.

DAGMAR SCHMIDT: (Through interpreter) It's an authoritarian, undemocratic, unconstitutional system that's trying to push its development model globally as an alternative to our open and democratic societies.

SCHMITZ: And as the relationship between the EU and China becomes more fraught, so does its relationship with the United States.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: So we're protecting Germany. We're protecting France. We're protecting all of these countries. And then numerous of the countries go out and make a pipeline deal with Russia.

SCHMITZ: President Trump complains that EU countries are shirking their responsibilities to NATO while making deals with Russia. Another Trump complaint - EU countries like Germany making deals with Chinese telecoms giant Huawei. Noah Barkin, senior visiting fellow at the German Marshall Fund, says Trump's impact on EU-China relations is a double-edged sword.

NOAH BARKIN: I think the Trump administration has forced Germany to think about its relationship. On the other hand, it's also polluted the debate about China in Germany in the sense that it is very easy for German politicians to resist steps that may be in their national interest based on the fact that Trump is the one pressing them to act.

SCHMITZ: That's because Trump is deeply unpopular with German voters. Barkin says a Biden administration could help stiffen Germany's approach to China.

BARKIN: If Joe Biden comes in and is sitting in the White House next year, it will be much more difficult for Europeans to use Trump as an excuse for not pushing back against China.

SCHMITZ: And to an extent, that may already be happening. A security bill Angela Merkel's cabinet will soon pass may effectively exclude Huawei from the construction of the country's 5G network, a move many thought was not likely just months ago.

Rob Schmitz, NPR News, Berlin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.