China revives panda diplomacy for Angela Merkel

Germany’s warm welcome for Xi Jinping comes ahead of meeting with Donald Trump

German chancellor Angela Merkel and Chinese president Xi Jinping attend a welcome ceremony for Chinese panda bears at the zoo in Berlin. Photograph: Axel Schmidt/Reuters

German chancellor Angela Merkel and Chinese president Xi Jinping attend a welcome ceremony for Chinese panda bears at the zoo in Berlin. Photograph: Axel Schmidt/Reuters


Chinese president Xi Jinping has arrived in Germany ahead of the G20 summit bearing gifts: a pair of pandas and the promise of a new partnership with the EU’s largest member state.

Even if Meng Meng and Jiao Qing are only on long-term loan, Beijing’s reactivation of Nixon-era panda diplomacy comes as China steps up efforts to occupy what it sees as a gap in the global leadership market vacated by the Trump administration.

In a busy day in Berlin, the Chinese president joined chancellor Angela Merkel to open a new €10 million panda pagoda in Berlin Zoo and oversee the signing of a €22.8 billion contract for 140 Airbus planes.

Even ex-German ministers were brought out of retirement to stroll the streets of the capital with young Chinese visitors, beneath scores of fluttering Chinese flags.

“The strategic character of Chinese-German relations is steadily gaining importance,” wrote Xi in an op-ed for Die Welt daily.

That love-in contrasts with the chilly welcome expected for US president Donald Trump on his first-ever visit to his ancestral homeland on Thursday. Just past the Trump era’s six-month mark, there is a whiff of change in the air as politicians, police and protesters brace themselves for the two-day, high-security Hamburg meeting.

In this week’s Die Zeit, Merkel said she saw “the global order in transition, and power relationships shifting”. She also stood by her dig at the US, given in a speech last month, that Europe can no longer rely fully on others.

Friend vs partner

Ahead of a pre-summit Trump-Merkel meeting on Thursday in Hamburg, the election programme of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union no longer refers to the US as a “friend”, but as Germany’s “most important partner”.

Months after China overtook the US as Germany’s biggest trading partner, Beijing’s diplomatic offensive is not without dangers for Merkel – given North Korean missile tests, ongoing human rights concerns and growing economic tensions. The US is gunning for China over its cheap steel, a row that may erupt in Hamburg, while Berlin has criticised Beijing over cyber espionage and its treatment of Liu Xiaobo, the terminally ill pro-democracy activist and Nobel laureate.

Last week Merkel criticised barriers to German firms in China and backed proposals to shield European companies from Chinese takeovers. But ever-closer economic ties mean that, as Merkel told Die Zeit, her political priority is to meet Chinese expectations and demands in a way “that results in a harmonious development for all”.

Given growing transatlantic differences, Merkel said it “made sense that Europe pool its strengths”, repeating her support for a Euro finance minister and economic government.

The German leader also criticised the Trump administration view of globalisation as an “arena”. “We don’t want that only a few benefit from economic progress, everyone should,” she said. “While we seek the possibilities of co-operation to benefit all, globalisation is seen in the American administration not as a process with a win-win situation but one of winners and losers.”