The Irish Times view on the visit of Chancellor Scholz to China

An important visit which showed a balance can be struck, with straight talking on human rights and the war in Ukraine alongside steps to build dialogue

Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s decision to visit China last week was viewed with suspicion by some of Germany’s allies abroad and within his own governing coalition at home. The fact that he was joined by a dozen chief executives of German companies fuelled fears that Scholz’s priorities were too focused on trade and not enough on values.

But the chancellor confounded his critics during his 11 hours in Beijing, during which President Xi Jinping joined him in warning against the use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine. This was the clearest, public delineation of the limits of Xi’s friendship with Vladimir Putin and it was, Scholz said after his return to Berlin, enough to justify the trip.

The chancellor raised with Xi the most serious contested issues between the European Union and China, including the treatment of the Uyghur minority in Xinjian, the threat of military action over Taiwan and trade sanctions against Lithuania. He criticised China’s failure to grant European companies access to its market on fair terms and he warned against attempts to use commercial ties to exert political pressure.

At the same time, Scholz and Xi agreed to intensify economic co-operation and to work together on global issues such as climate change and international development. And Scholz joined Xi in rejecting any attempt to decouple China’s economy from those of Europe and the United States.

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Scholz’s visit comes amid an ever-louder debate about the EU’s strategy since 2019 which identifies China as a partner for co-operation and negotiations, an economic competitor and a systemic rival promoting alternative models of governance. The relationship has deteriorated over the past three years, with the two sides exchanging sanctions over Xinjiang and Beijing attempting to exclude Lithuania from its market after Taiwan opened a representative office in Vilnius.

China’s failure to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has damaged its relationship with the EU more than anything else and Beijing has until now shown little understanding of the seriousness with which Europe views the issue. As the only figure on the international stage who may have any influence over Putin, Xi’s warning against nuclear threats in Ukraine is therefore important and welcome.

Scholz’s visit to Beijing came shortly after Xi was confirmed for a third five-year term as China’s leader with a top team composed of his close allies. His zero-Covid policy has kept Xi apart from other world leaders for most of the past three years as American policies seem bent on isolating China. It is in Europe’s interest to strengthen its dialogue with China, deepening partnership where possible while demanding a level playing field for trade and speaking frankly about human rights. Scholz’s visit is an important step in that direction.