Question: Minister, you’ve been in China, Brazil and South Africa during the last three months to explore shared values and interests and to urge these countries to bring their influence to bear on Russia. On a scale of 1 to 10 – how much in need of a holiday are you?
Annalena Baerbock: (laughs) Seven and a half.
Question: There was much praise for the stance you took in China, but also criticism. Some feel that Germany should not be lecturing China. What’s your response to that?
Baerbock: That is certainly not what I was doing. What’s most important to me is a frank exchange. We’ve seen that China has changed a lot in the last few years. It’s more repressive at home and more assertive abroad – and this also has a huge impact on German and European interests. I believe that openly addressing this is the point of foreign policy – not least in order to protect our interests. After all, China is protecting its own interests.
Question: Nevertheless, your manner on the diplomatic stage is very direct. Is this the way for Germany to gain respect from authoritarian states like China?
Baerbock: Clear words are not an end in themselves. Remaining silent is sometimes the right thing to do in foreign policy. Just as in everyday life, it depends on whether it’s wiser in any given situation to broach issues clearly or to turn a blind eye.
Question: You decided not to remain silent in China.
Baerbock: Especially when you listen carefully to representatives of the Chinese Government, it becomes very clear that they no longer accept parts of our international order and want to change it unilaterally. I believe that not commenting on this would be perceived by the Chinese side as acceptance. We’re currently seeing how important our international, rules-based order is for peaceful coexistence in the world. That’s why I stress time and again that we gave ourselves the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the United Nations – in whose drafting China played a role, by the way – and that we have an international order geared to dealing with disputes in order to prevent military escalation.
Question: The Chancellor doesn’t adopt a confrontational approach in his encounters with China’s representatives.
Baerbock: If you watch the Federal Chancellor’s press conferences and my own then you’ll see that we’ve said almost exactly the same thing while in China. Indeed, in some cases we’ve used the very same words. But it seems that it still makes a difference in the public perception whether a woman openly addresses issues or a man.
Question: Since last week we’ve had the China Strategy, a road map intended to shape our future policy on the People’s Republic. Why is it no longer possible to carry on as before with China, our largest trading partner?
Baerbock: If China is changing then our policy must also change. We’ve seen in other countries that China is intentionally investing in critical infrastructure – such as airports or roads – with the aim of using them as leverage in difficult times. Or that there’s a new law obliging every citizen and every company to pass on “security information” to the Chinese state. Precisely because we have such close economic relations with China, it’s important that we as a country have a shared compass for our actions. Many players are engaged in an exchange with China, not just the German Government: universities through their academics, German companies through their bases in China or German port operators interested in Chinese investors. We need a joint response for all of this.
Question: In the case of Tollerort port terminal in Hamburg, however, there was a different response to the one you would have liked. The deal went through after the Chancellor endorsed it.
Baerbock: We need investment in Germany as a location for industry, as well as trade with China. Nevertheless, we’ve seen that strategic investment doesn’t only follow economic logic. The investment screening procedure for Hamburg port, as well as other investments, have shown that there is still a need for improvement when it comes to the statutory provisions. With the National Security Strategy and the China Strategy, we’ve now laid the foundation for making our country more resilient. One of the aims of the forthcoming reform of investment screening legislation will be to strengthen the foreign and security policy criteria in the screening process and to beef up our tools.
Question: You get the feeling that so far the message about mitigating risks and reducing dependencies has been slow to reach companies. What political measures do you want to take to change this?
Baerbock: More than anything else, we need realism. Reliable relations with China in particular, the world’s largest market, are in our interest. However, Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine has demonstrated in a brutal manner that it’s a mistake to blindly trust that authoritarian regimes are ultimately reliable and not prepared to take extreme measures. Many German companies have the same interest as the German Government, namely avoiding too great a dependency on countries which don’t abide by the rules-based international order. That’s why especially many small and medium-sized enterprises have themselves begun not to focus solely on business with China but to diversify more. That’s to say, they’re building production sites in other countries to spread the risks.
Question: But how can you prevent, for example, German taxpayers ultimately having to bail out VW, which generates almost 40% of its turnover in China, or BASF, which continues to make huge investments in China?
Baerbock: I talk to companies about this very issue while travelling through Germany. What it would mean for them if the Chinese market were to be closed to them overnight – for whatever reason. Whether their businesses would survive and what it would mean for Germany as a location for business, as well as jobs in our country. After all, not even a country as rich as Germany can bail out companies using tax revenue on the scale that it did in the case of Russia’s war of aggression. In future, companies will have to carry such risks themselves to a greater extent. The German Government has therefore capped state investment guarantees abroad at three billion euro per company and per country. Anything above that is then solely the companies’ risk.
Question: With regard to firms, there are differences for example between family-owned companies, which look for long-term security, and large corporations, which are more interested in short-term profit.
Baerbock: Yes, small and medium-sized enterprises in particular told me during my trip to China in April that they were pleased that the Government was focusing more on reducing risks because they themselves want to lower their risks in China. The Government is responsible for the nation’s economic security in the coming years, not for the short-term profit of individual companies. If other rules apply in China on political grounds, and economic and raw material relations are used to further political interests, then we have to take appropriate action and, for example, diversify supply chains and produce more in Europe again.
Question: What does that mean in concrete terms?
Baerbock: Let me give you an example: nowadays semiconductor chips are to be found in almost all appliances. To all intents and purposes, an economy would be forced to shut down shop without these chips. The long delivery times for cars, especially electric cars, have made many people realise that semiconductors have become thin on the ground in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis. We’re dependent on the few producers: almost two thirds of the chips are manufactured in South Korea, Taiwan, China and Japan, and only around 10% in Europe. What’s more, the manufacturers need rare earths to produce semiconductors: we import around two thirds of these metals from China. The level of dependency is huge in this sector. That’s why we in Germany and Europe have decided to use public revenue to strengthen and support the further development of the chip industry. Our aim is to reduce our dependency on imports of this key component for cars, washing machines, wind turbines and much more. After all, pursuing a proactive location policy is also a security factor today.
Question: Semiconductors: Taiwan plays an important role in their manufacture. China is taking an increasingly aggressive stance towards Taiwan. Countries around the world fear there will be an escalation in the coming years. What support can Taiwan expect from Germany?
Baerbock: Germany has a One-China policy. That also means that the status quo must not be changed unilaterally by force. I therefore strongly advocated de-escalation when I was in Beijing. Because if there were to be a military escalation in the Taiwan Strait, this would have an even huger economic impact on the entire world than Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine. After all, around half of the world’s container ships pass through the Taiwan Strait.
Question: Don’t we have to discuss military support in the Taiwan conflict so that we don’t get caught out as we were by Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine?
Baerbock: As I said, our aim is de-escalation.
Question: Let’s move on to domestic policy. The summer break is about to start. The AfD is currently ahead of the Greens and also the SPD in the polls. What has the coalition done to contribute to that?
Baerbock: In times of uncertainty such as now with Russia’s war of aggression, it’s always easier for populist parties. We shouldn’t make it even easier for them by conducting disputes within the coalition in public over many months.
Question: So every member of the cabinet should go off on their summer holidays and reflect on how they can do better after the break so that a dispute such as the one about the heating law doesn’t escalate again?
Baerbock: We should remind ourselves where we stand: more than 500 days of Russia’s war of aggression, the immeasurable suffering of people in Ukraine, the immense economic challenges which have emerged as a result of this war for us too, such as the sharp rise in food prices. All of this is having an impact. There’s no doubt that some discussions within the Government could certainly have been conducted a bit more calmly. Nevertheless, I’m all in favour of not making things too easy for ourselves.
Question: What do you mean by that?
Baerbock: Populism seems to offer easy answers. But our world is complex, we cannot think in terms of black and white. Yes, compromises are difficult. However, they are the very essence of democracy. And – thankfully – in a democracy one individual or party doesn’t aggressively assert themselves and decide everything. It’s important to me not to downplay that. We as democratic parties have a responsibility to explain to people why some things are more complicated and why compromises require more patience in democracies. It’s hard work, but that’s the task of politicians. And when all is said and done, the great majority in our society supports everything that right-wing populists reject, namely the richness of diversity, our open and free society, respect for others and the values of the European Union as key guiding principles for our policies.
Interview: Mareike Kürschner