Armin Laschet, frontrunner to become Germany’s next chancellor, has warned of the dangers of a new cold war against China, agreeing with Angela Merkel that Beijing was as much a partner as a systemic rival.

Laschet was speaking to the Financial Times after US president Joe Biden’s first official trip to Europe, which was dominated by warnings about the challenge China poses for the west. Biden has made it clear he wants to work with allies to curb China’s ambitions.

In a wide-ranging interview Laschet, leader of Germany’s centre-right Christian Democratic Union, suggested many in Europe were sceptical of his hawkish attitude to China.

“The question is — if we’re talking about ‘restraining’ China, will that lead to a new conflict? Do we need a new adversary?” he said. “And there the European response was cautious, because, yes, China is a competitor and a systemic rival, it has a different model of society, but it’s also a partner, particularly in things like fighting climate change.”

Laschet also called for Russia to be brought out of the cold, saying the west must try to “establish a sensible relationship” with Moscow. “Ignoring Russia has served neither our nor the US’ interests,” he said, praising Biden’s decision to meet Russian president Vladimir Putin in Geneva last week.

With three months until an election that will see Merkel step down as chancellor, polls suggest that Laschet’s CDU is on course to win, though it faces a strong challenge from the opposition Greens. One possible outcome is a CDU-Green coalition, the first in Germany’s history, with Laschet as chancellor.

During the interview, Laschet was at pains to suggest continuity with Merkel’s policies. The two had very different personal biographies, but “on the fundamental issues we always agreed”. 

One area of agreement appears to be China. Merkel has often been accused of tempering her criticism of Chinese human rights violations for fear of harming the interests of German companies active in China.

Laschet said Germany should never shy away from addressing “critical issues”. “But I’m not sure that always speaking out, loudly and aggressively, in public about a country’s human rights situation really leads to improvements on the ground,” he added.

“Often you can reach more in the area of human rights by addressing issues in private conversations with leaders of other countries than by talking about it in press conferences.”

This softly-softly approach could set up a potential clash with the Greens, who are much more eager to challenge China publicly over its human rights record, as well as tensions with the Biden administration.

Biden’s tough stance on China was in evidence during his European trip. The G7 summit communiqué criticised Beijing over human rights, trade and a lack of transparency regarding the origins of the coronavirus pandemic.

Asked if he thought Biden was trying to drag Europe into a new cold war, Laschet demurred, saying he was “right” to view China as “one of the biggest challenges for us, for instance on new technologies” and to want to “strengthen co-operation among democracies”.

But he also said the west should resist slipping into a cold war mentality when it came to its geopolitical contest with China. “The 21st century is very different and the prism of how the world looked before 1989 offers limited advice,” he said. “We have a multipolar world [now] with different actors.”

Laschet insisted, however, that he would not be a soft touch on China. “I would try to foster our partnership wherever possible, and, at the same time, make clear what we expect from China: that it accept reciprocity, embrace multilateralism and respect human rights.

On Russia, Laschet said he had always insisted its annexation of Crimea was an “unacceptable” breach of international law. But he also argued that Russia, a member of the UN Security Council, should not be ignored or belittled.

He took issue, for example, with Barack Obama’s famous characterisation of Russia as a “regional power”, saying that was one of the causes of rising tensions between Moscow and the west over the past decade.

“It’s the largest country in the world, a nuclear power,” he said, adding that Biden’s approach — restoring ambassadors, describing Russia as a “great power” and “taking Russia seriously as an interlocutor” — had sent a “very important signal”.

Laschet defended the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, the Gazprom project bringing natural gas directly to Germany from Russia across the Baltic Sea, saying Germany will need more gas as it phases out nuclear energy and coal-fired power.

But he also had a warning for Moscow: The pipeline “must not become a geopolitical instrument against Ukraine”. “Ukraine’s interests must be safeguarded,” he said. “And if the Russians don’t stick to that, the basis of the NS2 deal will cease to exist.”

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