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Interview: “We want a strategic partnership with China”

28.06.2011 - Interview

Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle in an interview with Deutschlandfunk on the German-Chinese intergovernmental consultations

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Mr Westerwelle, Wen Jiabao is bringing a major delegation to Germany for the German-Chinese intergovernmental consultations.Such intergovernmental consultations are already held with Poland, France and Israel, and now comes China, an utter dictatorship.What do you expect this to achieve?

We want to not only form a strategic partnership with China, but also expand and intensify it, which we believe to be highly – and mutually – significant in terms of economic opportunities. On the other hand, there isn’t a single problem or issue of truly global relevance that can be solved in any other way than by working together. Take climate protection, for example, or global security and conflict prevention issues. A country as important as China – where it stands, what it does – always has a vital impact on these issues, so of course we want to make use of our influence on each other.

To continue briefly on the topic of economic prospects,China has shown major interest in investing in Europe, and is currently buying up European government bonds. Is there in fact a risk of too much cooperation with China, too much dependence on it?

I think such fears are misguided when it comes to China, as they’re based on a sort of zero-sum thinking, which holds that others will necessarily become weaker as China grows stronger, that Europe’s influence, for example, will wane as China’s waxes. The truth is quite the opposite: China’s influence is growing, the Chinese economy is growing, but at the same time if we position ourselves well and play a sensible political role, China’s ascending will not come at our expense, but rather will clearly benefit us. To offer a simple example, 1.3 billion people live in China. Several hundred million of them have joined the middle class in recent years. These people are very interested in high-quality German products, and they also have a keen interest in the world. It’s thus not only economic issues that are being globalized, but also people’s values, their perspectives. We in Germany call this kind of exchange “change through trade”, and we want to keep encouraging it.

All the same, Mr Minister, there is concern about such regimes investing so heavily in Europe.For example, doubts have repeatedly been expressed as to the wisdom of allowing Russia to invest in the energy sector or in high-tech fields such as the aeronautic industry.Can the same be said regarding China?

These are concerns which I emphatically do not share. In this changing world, we have the core task of maintaining our old partnerships and friendships, nurturing and building on our traditional relationships, while at the same time forging new partnerships and new friendships in a world of shifting power balances. Anyone who fears free trade, who is afraid of other countries – including large countries – investing in Germany, is underestimating Germany’s dependence on international networking. Germany has no natural resources to offer for export to ensure our prosperity. Rather, we live from our inventions, from our international networks. No country is as dependent on international trade as Germany. And if we act as we should, this won’t just be about economic interests – but also explicitly about values, human rights, and civil rights. For we intend to exert a healthy and positive influence.

Speaking of human rights,two critics of the Chinese regime have been released from prison in China in recent days,as I mentioned at the beginning.Does this make any difference to your appraisal of the human rights situation in China?

We’ll have to wait and see what this means in concrete terms. When I think about the release of the artist Ai Weiwei in particular, which I personally strongly urged – both politically and diplomatically – the circumstances of his release remain disheartening. Nonetheless, his release has of course been noticed, and is viewed positively. I think that when it comes to developments, internal developments, we have to keep our eye on the longer term, not just on the current year. A lot of people forget that the ruling Communist Party opened up China just over 30 years ago. It also needs to be recognized that our Western system wasn’t built in a day either; rather, it took time for the beliefs, values and principles of the Enlightenment to be internalized.

Speaking of long-term development,observers say that the human rights situation in China has actually deteriorated in recent years, especially since the Olympic Games were held there.What are you going to say to Wen Jiabao about this today?

We had a very positive and friendly conversation yesterday, which of course, included the issues on which we still have differences of opinion, which undoubtedly include our countries’ respective concepts of freedom. There are indeed differences. But that’s also why we hold consultations: to exchange views, to discuss our perspectives with each other in the hope that change can come about this way. We’ve also addressed the situation of our journalists, that is, the German correspondents working in China and their working conditions. Awkward and sensitive issues can be discussed well not only with the Chinese Prime Minister but also with the entire Chinese delegation, because our relations have attained a depth and intensity that make it possible to broach these topics, which is what we do. However, we approach this in such a manner that China always senses that we aren’t the lecturing schoolteacher, but rather are representing our values and beliefs; we seek to persuade them but we don’t want to treat anybody with contempt.

Mr Westerwelle, perhaps the reason it’s so easy to speak to the Chinese leadership about these issues is that China speaks with a forked tongue.At least, that’s what the organization Human Rights Watch claims.Human Rights Watch says that on the international stage Chinese leaders always promise to improve the human rights situation, but in terms of domestic policy they brutally go about just the opposite.Does that align with your own observations?

Well, first of all, it is true that there have been setbacks in recent months, especially after the Olympic Games. On the other hand, we need to recognize that over a longer period praiseworthy developments have become possible. We’re engaged above all in supporting civil rights lawyers. And we’ve also developed a significant bilateral project addressing the topic of artistic freedom. The “Art of the Enlightenment” exhibition in China, which I personally had the pleasure of opening – which in turn became the subject of heated debate in Germany – is being seen by ever more Chinese people. The attendance figures have reached such a level that some 1500 people a day are visiting the exhibition. That is to say, there are many different ways to get across your own views and to persuade others of them. One thing we must not forget is that human rights are not a domestic matter – not here, not there, nowhere in the world. They’re a matter of universal importance. This means that they apply everywhere and for everyone. German foreign policy is interest-led, we recognize our economic opportunities, but it is also value-oriented; we also heed our own internal compass.

If I may, Mr Minister, I’d like to turn briefly to another topic.Yesterday the Society for Threatened Peoples in Berlin suggested that domestic servants are being held under slave-like conditions in diplomatic households in Berlin.What’s your view on this?

I cannot evaluate this claim. I have requested that my office look into the matter; when they have done so, I will of course be able to take a position on this issue. But please understand that I cannot pass judgment on the basis of media reports alone.

Would such acts be covered by diplomatic immunity?

As you know, we have multiple ways of making sure that not only the rule of law, but also social standards are universally adhered to and respected in Germany, and there is no doubt that this is what we will do. But we will not pass any judgment before the facts of the matter have been sufficiently established. I have charged my staff with this, and I will not make any assessment until they have completed this task.

Federal Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle this morning on Deutschlandfunk.Thank you very much for joining us, Mr Westerwelle, good-bye!

Thank you!

Questions: Peter Kapern.Reproduced with the kind permission of Deutschlandfunk.

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