China and Russia in spotlight as Greens take charge of German foreign policy

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For months Germany’s Greens have pushed for a major rethink of their country’s foreign policy. Now they have the chance to spell out exactly what changes they have in mind.

For the first time in 16 years the Greens will take charge of the German foreign ministry under a coalition deal reached this week with the Social Democrats and liberals that could have big implications for partners and adversaries alike. Relations with China and Russia in particular could be set for a bumpy ride.

Most observers expect the job of foreign minister to go to Annalena Baerbock, the Green co-leader, who has argued strongly for a foreign policy “guided by human rights and values”.

That could be read as a veiled attack on Angela Merkel, who will retire from politics next month after 16 years as chancellor. The Greens have long argued that Merkel placed Germany’s commercial interests ahead of defending western values such as the rule of law and democracy.

The Greens viewed the longtime chancellor as too soft on China, failing to speak out strongly enough on abuses in Xinjiang and Hong Kong. She pursued sanctions on Russia over Crimea but also backed the Nord Stream 2 pipeline carrying Russian gas directly to Germany — a project that critics said would hurt Ukraine and expand the Kremlin’s grip on EU energy markets.

“We have to stop [equating] German interests with German economic interests,” said Franziska Brantner, the Greens’ spokeswoman on Europe, at a conference on foreign policy this week. “We as Germans really have to change course. If we continue, we will pay a very heavy price.”

The coalition agreement suggests the foreign policy stance may change.

“The language on China is the strongest ever to appear in a German coalition agreement,” said Noah Barkin of Rhodium Group, a consultancy. “The readiness to touch on China’s red lines, including Taiwan, Xinjiang and Hong Kong shows how much the German debate has evolved in recent years.”

The agreement says China is a potential partner, but also a competitor and systemic rival. Germany expects China to play a “responsible role for peace and stability in its neighbourhood”, and any change to Taiwan’s status must take place “peacefully and with mutual consent”. Territorial disputes in the South China Sea must be resolved “on the basis of international maritime law”.

Crucially, the deal says, Germany will closely co-ordinate China policy with the US and “work together with like-minded countries to reduce strategic dependencies”.

Barkin said: “There is a lot of nervousness among Chinese diplomats around Merkel’s departure and the entry of the Greens into the government . . . They know that if the new government adopts a harder line, Europe will follow.”

The rhetoric on Russia, too, is tough. “They are no longer dreaming about the Russia we wish we had, the Russia that lies just beyond the horizon,” said Jana Puglierin, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “They have a much more clear-eyed and realistic view.”

The partners call on Russia to “immediately stop” trying to destabilise Ukraine and criticise the Kremlin’s crackdown on civil rights at home. Berlin is prepared to have a “constructive dialogue” with Moscow but will be guided by the interests of its eastern European neighbours and take into account the “perceived threats” they face from Russia.

While taking east Europeans’ concerns about Moscow seriously, the coalition partners signalled they would pursue Hungary and Poland more aggressively over their rule of law violations — another Green priority. In the coalition deal they call on the European Commission to “use and enforce the existing rule of law mechanisms more strictly and promptly”.

Merkel always prided herself on the bridges she built between Germany and former Warsaw Pact countries such as Hungary. “But if we have a bridge to nowhere, how does that help anyone?” said Brantner. “We have to be tougher on the rule of law, while at the same time accepting the east Europeans’ . . . valid concerns vis-à-vis Putin.”

There is plenty of scepticism in Germany and abroad about a new, green-tinged foreign policy. Conservatives have questioned whether Baerbock, who has no government experience, will hold her own against the likes of Vladimir Putin and Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Observers have also questioned how much power a Baerbock-led foreign ministry will really have, in a system where the chancellery tends to have the ultimate say over foreign policy. That is a sharp contrast to the days of Joschka Fischer, who was the only other Green to occupy the post and famously supported a German military role in the Kosovo war in the late 1990s.

“Merkel dealt with all the big foreign policy portfolios herself,” said Puglierin. Baerbock will try to bring back competences to the foreign ministry, “but it won’t be easy”. “The Putins, Bidens and Xis will want to talk to the chancellor directly, and not her,” she added.

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