BERLIN – Chinese Premier Li Qiang has started a visit to Germany and France that comes as Europe seeks to balance concerns over economic dependence on China and about its stance toward Ukraine and Taiwan with a desire to engage Beijing on issues such as climate change.
Li, on his first trip abroad since taking office, was received by German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier on Monday. He and a large delegation of Chinese ministers will meet with Chancellor Olaf Scholz and their German counterparts on Tuesday, the seventh time the two countries have held such government consultations. Top officials from both sides also will meet business representatives.
Li, a former Communist Party secretary for Shanghai, took office in March as China's No. 2 official. It was part of a once-a-decade change of government that installed loyalists of Chinese leader Xi Jinping to enforce his vision of tighter political control over the economy and society.
The visit comes as Europe and Germany consider how best to handle an increasingly assertive China. Scholz has advocated a balanced approach, calling for “derisking” — seeking to avoid overreliance on Chinese trade and material by diversifying Berlin's partners — but roundly rejecting the idea of “decoupling.”
The Group of Seven leading industrial powers echoed that position last month. “The G7 has no interest in impeding China's economic rise, and at the same time we are looking closely to avoid dangerous economic dependencies,” Scholz said Monday.
China has been Germany's biggest single trading partner in recent years, though it was only just ahead of the United States in this year's first quarter.
In Germany's first national security strategy, presented last week, the government says it views China as “a partner, competitor and systemic rival.”
It says that “elements of rivalry and competition have increased in recent years; at the same time China remains a partner without which many of the most pressing global challenges can’t be solved.”
German officials point to combating climate change as a particularly important point of potential cooperation. The official motto of Tuesday's meeting is “Acting sustainably together.”
The German government is still drawing up a detailed separate strategy on China, though it isn't clear when that will be ready.
Li's arrival in Berlin coincided with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken's trip to Beijing, aimed at reducing tensions with China. Scholz welcomed that visit as “a good sign for an urgently needed normalization of relations.”
The chancellor traveled to Beijing in November to meet Xi, who warned against the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons. Scholz frequently portrays that as a success against the backdrop of China’s refusal to criticize the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Just before that trip, Scholz's government resolved an internal disagreement over a Chinese shipping company’s investment in a German container terminal. The company, COSCO, was limited to a stake just below 25%, meaning it wouldn't have the power to block the operator's decisions.
On Monday, the Hamburg port authority announced that that the agreement for COSCO to take a stake in the Tollerort terminal had been signed “following the completion of the investment screening process.”
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wengbin said last week that the choice of Germany as Li’s first stop “fully reflects the high importance China attaches to China-Germany relations.” He said China looked forward to “sending positive signals to the world to strengthen dialogue and cooperation” and joining to address challenges “so as to promote the prosperity and development of the world economy.”
Li is following his visit to Germany, which has the EU's biggest economy, with a stop in France, the second-biggest. While there, Li plans to attend a “Summit for a New Global Financing Pact” that is being held at French President Emmanuel Macron's initiative.