What I advise is de escalation

18.10.2012 - Interview

In an interview, Foreign Minister Westerwelle speaks about his visit to China last week, China’s role in the international community and current territorial conflicts in East Asia.Published in Die Zeit on 18 October 2012


Last week you met with the Chinese Foreign Minister for a strategic dialogue for the third time.What is the goal of the dialogue? How is it beneficial?

Our dialogue is encompassing ever more global and regional political issues. What this means is that we’re not just pursuing economic interests with each other, not just collaborating culturally and conducting a dialogue on the rule of law; rather, we’re engaging with China’s growing clout in the world and in global politics.

What are the points of disagreement?

We’re seeing that currently in Syria. From our perspective, China should have different strategic interests than Russia in Syria and the Middle East.

Such as what?

Russia has a different relationship with the Middle East. It doesn’t need to import energy, whereas China is very dependent on keeping its energy supply affordable, stable and reliable. Anything else would endanger Beijing’s development goals and the dynamic growth of the Chinese economy.

What kind of influence does China wield in Damascus?

It’s both direct and indirect – direct contacts with the government and the opposition, as well as on indirect levels, for example via Russia. It is in our own interest that we all remain steadfast in our efforts to talk to Russia so that we can overcome the blockade in the Security Council, which is frustrating and merits criticism.

Is China taking on the level of international responsibility suitable to a country of its size and stature?

More and more so. We’re not living in a unipolar or bipolar world, we’re living in the multipolar world of the 21st century. China is one of the truly major centres of power in today’s world. The more economic power China gains, the more important it is for the political authority that arises from this power to be used responsibly, that is, in the interest of peace, stability and balance.

The Chinese leaders always say that the development of their own country is their most important contribution to international stability.

They’re not wrong. And their efforts and achievements are highly admirable.Prime Minister Wen Jiabao’s government is quitting now. I will look back on his term in office as one of the most successful in his country’s history. China might seem to us to be a giant and at the same time highly homogenous realm. But it isn’t that: China is a multiethnic country with many languages and many cultures; it’s no wonder, then, that China places so much value on a harmonic society. This harmony means a balance between rich and poor, rural and urban, inland and coastal regions. And of course it also means striking a balance among different cultures, ethnic groups and mindsets.

Naturally, the harmonic society is also an ideological concept, one which is difficult to reconcile with our notion of an open society.

I as a liberal politician believe firmly that economic and societal opening up are connected with each other, at least in the long term. This can also be seen in today’s China. But China and Germany have very different cultural, historical and philosophical contexts. Our values therefore cannot be exactly the same. This makes it all the more remarkable that we are able to speak openly and work together so closely despite these differences.

The 18th Party Congress begins in Beijing in three weeks.Almost the entire leadership will change.Do you expect changes in foreign policy?

I’m hoping for continuity – with a few improvements.

What improvements?

For example, regarding Syria. I hope that major disjunctures in the policy of opening up are avoided. I also see the repeated setbacks – for example, the arrests of artists. We are addressing this. But I’m old enough to have personally experienced a political timeframe of more than thirty years. During this period there have been short-term fits and starts. But the long-term trend since the Chinese Communist Party’s 1979 decision to open up the country has definitely moved in the right direction.

When it comes to the territorial conflicts in the South China Sea and the island dispute with Japan, China’s role is not exactly productive.

I hope that all those involved are aware that these problems can only be solved through talks and negotiations.

The tensions between China and Japan dominated your strategic dialogue with your counterpart, Foreign Minister Yang, in Beijing.There’s quite a row between China and Japan …

We’re concerned about recent developments. I said that to Foreign Minister Yang. What I advise is de escalation. An escalation of disputes between the world’s second- and third-largest economies would also go against our own interests. Everything that would hinder growth, trade and investment in this large region which is so vital to the global economy should be ceased – in everyone’s interest.

You also spoke about human rights.Hasn’t that become a rather tiresome ritual for both sides?

(long pause) True engagement on behalf of human rights activists and artists and minorities does not take place at press conferences.

What are you doing in concrete terms?

I think the German Government has done a lot more to improve some people’s lives and conditions than the public knows. Tact is of the utmost significance, especially in China. Sometimes in the West you can take a slapdash and literally back-slapping approach. In China that works only up to a certain point, beyond which saving face is an issue. You can get a lot done if you respect these rules. So in some cases we’ve kept quiet about the results we’ve achieved. That’s part of how things work.

Does the awarding of the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade to Liao Yiwu, a writer critical of the Chinese regime, send a positive message?

Liao Yiwu is an important writer and China is a great nation of literature and culture. This is also shown in the Nobel Prize Committee’s decision to bestow the prize for literature on Mo Yan. A few days ago I spoke at the opening event of the Frankfurt Book Fair. The awarding of the prize to Liao Yiwu was a noteworthy decision on the part of German civil society. It’s no cause for any member of the German Government to have to explain themselves in China.

Forty-four Tibetans have self-immolated since February 2009 in protest of China’s Tibet policies.How did you address the issue of Tibet in Beijing?

It’s sad that so many people have done such a thing to themselves. Such an act shows true desperation, and no one can remain indifferent to it. The first time I addressed this issue with my current counterpart, Foreign Minister Yang, was when I was still an opposition leader back in the era of the grand coalition. The FDP had close ties to the Tibetan people through our late honorary chairman Otto Graf Lambsdorff.

The Friedrich Naumann Foundation’s office in Beijing was closed because of a dispute over Tibet.

Exactly. So it makes sense that I’m dealing with this issue too. This also has to do with the fact that we know each other well. I still remember clearly how much cooler and more formal the conversation became when I brought up the issue on my first official visit to China in 2007. These days we get further when we talk about things.This is another one of the hopeful signs that are part of the long-term trend I’ve described.

The territorial conflicts in the South China Sea have driven ever more Southeast Asian countries closer to the US out of concern over China’s growing power.Are the Americans indirectly representing European interests as well here?Europe has no security presence whatsoever in this region, and doesn’t want to have one.

With their growing engagement in the Asia-Pacific region the Americans are of course pursuing their own interests first and foremost, including their own economic interests. To be frank, we do the same thing. When it comes to peaceful conflict resolution and political cooperation, we have exactly the same interests as our American partners. But when it comes to deals and contracts for German and European companies, we’re in competition with them.

So is that the Western division of labour: the Americans pursue their military and strategic interests, the European pursue their economic interests?

Is it not rather the case that in the era of globalization the strength of a country’s economy has supplanted the size of its army as the real foundation for its authority in foreign policy? Why is Germany so highly regarded internationally? I hope it has something to do with longstanding diplomatic acumen, and with the assistance we offer in emergencies, but it is most certainly because we play a big role in the global economy. This can shift very quickly, though, in a multipolar world. We Europeans are therefore well advised to do our homework on consolidation and growth and to move even closer together if we want our European way of life to maintain its clout and influence in the world. Some of what is said about Europe in Germany strikes me as immature and self-satisfied. Germany will not thrive in the long term unless Europe does.

Asia is arming itself ever more, especially China.Nationalism is growing.What can Asia learn from Europe, from its historical experiences?

There’s one thing that can be learned from Europe, probably more than from any other region of the world, and that’s the fact that a model of cooperation is far better than a model of confrontation. European integration is the most successful project of peace and prosperity in history. This is the message of the Nobel Peace Prize for the European Union. And it’s also a task for our future.

Is Asia taking this lesson onboard?

It’s my impression that in Asia the voices of those who see things the way we do are becoming stronger. In any case it’s clear to most people that a politics of confrontation endangers everyone’s development goals –including one’s own.

Interview conducted by Mathias Nass. Reproduced by kind permission of Die Zeit.

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