How Scholz’s Unpopular Trip to Beijing Actually Served U.S. Interests

Olaf Scholz visited Beijing for his first time as Germany’s chancellor on Friday, becoming the first Western leader to do so since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic nearly three years ago. His trip was heavily criticized from within Germany and without. He came under fire not just from transatlantic partners and other EU member states but also from his own coalition partners, the Greens and the Free Democrats (FDP). Member of the European Parliament (MEP) Reinhard Bütikofer of the German Greens, labeled it the “most controversially debated visit in the country for the last 50 years.”

There is no doubt that Scholz made mistakes in designing and marketing the trip. The chancellor traveled with a delegation of business leaders in tow, drawing awkward parallels with the business-first paradigm pursued by former chancellor Angela Merkel, which has largely lost favor in Brussels and many corners of Berlin. Scholz visited Xi Jinping immediately after the Chinese president re-cemented his rule at the 20th Party Congress. The visit also came directly after Scholz overruled a large part of his cabinet, the EU Commission, and Germany’s intelligence services to allow Chinese conglomerate COSCO Shipping Holdings Co Ltd. to acquire a minority stake in a Hamburg port terminal. This sequence of events led some in the German parliament to argue Scholz was taking an “almost submissive stance” toward China (author’s translation). One could rightly wonder why Scholz chose to schedule a state visit before the G20 Summit in Bali, Indonesia, which will offer a chance for EU leaders to speak to Xi together.

But some of the reasons the visit was criticized are the ones that make it so needed. The visit comes when the world is indeed “in times of change and turmoil” as Xi told Scholz . In Ukraine, Russian president Putin is flirting with use of a tactical nuclear weapon; the war, Covid-19, and inflation have accelerated shared economic and environmental challenges such as food and energy insecurity, particularly for developing countries; and frictions heading into the UN Conference of the Parties (COP27) make it unlikely the climate summit will produce meaningful outcomes in the face of increasingly visible environmental catastrophe. Meanwhile, Xi has emerged from the 20th Party Congress surrounded by loyalists, committed to pursuing a more economically independent, ideologically pure, and (at least for now) physically isolated China.

Against this backdrop, Scholz’s trip directly served two immediate U.S. interests. The first relates to the war in Ukraine. President Xi paid lip service to respecting Germany’s core interests—which China’s behavior so far in the war has not—but he did make his most overt criticism so far of Putin’s war, and warned that China joins the international community in “oppos[ing] the use of, or threats to use, nuclear weapons.” The extent to which Xi could successfully dissuade Putin from deploying a tactical nuclear weapon is debatable, especially given the circumstances which would have Putin considering such a move. But in any case, Xi heard clearly from China’s top European trading partner that asserting his influence over Putin to facilitate an end to the war is a German priority in its relationship with Beijing.

The second relates to Taiwan. Germany, alongside other U.S. allies and partners, shares a stake in the peace and stability of the Taiwan Strait as a major maritime trade hub. At a news conference with outgoing Chinese premier Li Keqiang, Scholz told reporters that he had “made it clear that any change in Taiwan’s status quo must be peaceful or by mutual agreement.” There is no way of knowing what Scholz said beyond that on the issue, but the more leaders from EU states and other advanced democracies that warn President Xi against the use of force, the better. This will remind Xi that the United States is not isolated in its concern for stability in Taiwan and Xi’s decisions will have international consequences.

Beyond these immediate uses of Scholz’s trip, leader-to-leader contact with Xi will be important going forward given developments both within and outside of China. First, while the implications of the 20th Party Congress for China’s international behavior and foreign interests in China remain up for debate, what is clear is that the other six individuals on the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) share a track record implementing Xi’s vision. Much has been written about the risks of echo chambers forming around authoritarian leaders as they consolidate power, extend their rule, and organize promotions based on ideological conformity. Xi’s “ window to the world ” is narrowing as he surrounds himself with a small group of loyalists.

Greater diplomatic contact offers a chance to open that window just a crack, and visits by leaders of U.S. allies and partners are particularly powerful when they reveal unity on key concerns regarding China’s behavior—even if they are not carried out in unison. Arguably more importantly, greater diplomatic contact can prove useful when it helps get a better sense of how Xi perceives the international environment and China’s role within it. As Xi’s grip on policymaking tightens, this information will make it easier to understand, predict, and react to China’s international behavior. Leaders of the free world talk to each other , and Scholz should ensure he proactively communicates takeaways of his trip with Germany’s allies and partners to leverage information strategically.

Second, diplomatic contact offers a chance to probe the “wherever” in “cooperate wherever we can,” as U.S. secretary of state Antony Blinken said of the U.S. relationship with China in May. The 2022 National Security Strategy puts transnational threats, including “ climate change, food insecurity, communicable diseases, terrorism, energy shortages, or inflation ,” on equal footing with geopolitical ones, and warns that the “window of opportunity to deal with shared threats . . . will narrow drastically” in the next decade. As the world’s second-largest economy, biggest greenhouse gas emitter, and most populous country, China will inevitably have enormous influence over whether this window of opportunity is used. As Nils Schmid, foreign policy spokesman for the Social Democrats (SPD) parliamentary group (and longtime China skeptic) put it , one reason Scholz’s trip was needed was to “find out to what extent cooperation with China is possible for both sides . . . primarily [in] climate protection,” (author’s translation). President Biden will likely meet his Chinese counterpart at the G20 Summit in Bali, Indonesia, and he would do well to do follow suit.

Even as they encourage deeper coordination among like-minded states on China policy, U.S. policymakers have no reason to discourage future trips to Beijing by leaders of allied and partner countries. Instead, these trips should be judged by their output. To the extent that they warn Xi against growing assertiveness against Taiwan, persuade him to show Putin their friendship has limits, keep Beijing in the conversation on transnational issues, and provide a window into Xi Jinping’s worldview, they serve U.S. interests. The real work on China for Scholz will begin as he gets home, returning to a task some would have preferred he conclude before his visit: finalizing a national China strategy that unifies his coalition and facilitates greater coordination with European and transatlantic partners.

Lily McElwee is a fellow with the Freeman Chair in China Studies and supports the CSIS-Chumir Global Dialogue at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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Lily McElwee
Deputy Director and Fellow, Freeman Chair in China Studies