“Zeitenwende”: a turning point for German policy towards China?

A review by Norbert Röttgen, “Never helpless again! A manifesto in times of war » (published in German under the title Nie wieder hilflos! Ein Manifest in Zeiten des Krieges) (dtv, 2022).


“The unimaginable has happened: war has returned to Europe.” These are the first lines of a new book by Norbert Röttgen, German parliamentarian and one of the most outspoken German politicians on foreign policy. Three months after the February 24 Russian attack on Ukraine, he released “Never Again Helpless! A wartime manifesto. Written with a powerful sense of urgency, Röttgen attempts to chart the way forward for Germany after many years of neglectful foreign policy.

The book follows a speech by Chancellor Olaf Scholz, in which the German leader said the invasion of Ukraine would trigger a “Zeitenwende” or paradigm shift for German foreign policy. The exact meaning of this Zeitenwende and the scope of these changes are still uncertain. The question on the minds of many policy makers in the United States is: has Germany taken notice of the Chinese challenge? And what does the invasion of Ukraine and Zeitenwende mean for Germany’s China policy? The Biden administration is currently building a system of alliances and partners who can act together with a common goal on China-related issues. The extent to which Germany will be a ready player in this system depends on the influence in Berlin of people like Norbert Röttgen – and his new book.

Röttgen is outspoken. Berlin did not expect the invasion of Ukraine. Germany, he said, was “powerless” in the face of Russian aggression. What should the country do now? As his book begins with the invasion of Ukraine, he quickly moves on to draw lucid conclusions about Germany’s partnership with the United States, the urgency of climate change, German energy security and a larger challenge. away from the physical borders of Europe.China and a potential conflict in the South China Sea.

As a longtime member of the German Bundestag’s Foreign Affairs Committee, Röttgen has earned a reputation as a critic of Germany’s accommodative foreign policy toward authoritarian countries such as Russia and China. On Russia, for example, he was one of the first critics of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline which has facilitated Germany’s greater energy dependence on Russia. When Angela Merkel was still Chancellor, he criticized her an accommodating policy towards China, despite belonging to the same party, the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), the ruling party at the time. He disputed Merkel’s relatively open approach to Huawei 5G technology in the German telecommunications infrastructure. In the aftermath of Beijing’s crackdown on Hong Kong, it sentenced Berlin’s soft messaging and restrained politics.

Röttgen’s views on China captured in this book will be welcomed by the foreign policy establishment in Washington, DC. In fact, if US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Norbert Röttgen were sitting together in a conference room discussing China, they would probably finish their sentences. In his book, Röttgen writes: “China has the will and the ability to fundamentally change the international order and with it the world in which we live”. This month of May, Blinken gave a speech on the position of the Biden administration on China, reflecting an understanding similar to Röttgen’s: “China is the only country intent on both reshaping the international order and, increasingly, economic, diplomatic, military and technological might for do it. The enormity of the Chinese challenge is clear to both men.

Röttgen rightly argues that when it comes to China, Germany’s role is too important to ignore. “Whether China succeeds in placing a wedge between the Europeans, and between Europe and the United States, again very much depends on Germany.” Cooperation with the United States is crucial, but Röttgen warns that Donald Trump’s presidency has made America a less reliable partner. As he focuses on domestic projects such as infrastructure and policy toward China, the energies of the Biden administration will be diverted from Europe, Röttgen warns his German readers. There are several moments of mild rebuke from the United States in this book. Röttgen says that Germany does not want a “cold war” with China, and that Germany must regularly remind the United States of this. This piece probably serves less as a critique of American foreign policy than as a subtle signal that even a very transatlantic Germany could only be pushed so far.

The limits on Germany’s ability to take more drastic action against China have sparked significant debate this summer. After Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, a visit Röttgen dismissed as a futile provocation, he condemned Germany’s economic dependence on China and the limits it places on German maneuverability. The war in Ukraine has triggered exorbitant energy prices in Germany that threaten to erode popular support for sanctions against Russia. When asked in an interview on German public broadcaster ZDF whether Germany “could afford” to impose sanctions on China in the event of a Chinese attack on Taiwan, he replied: “At the moment, fundamentally not”. In the interview, he said that “growth in China is being weaponized” just as energy dependence on Russia has been weaponized. “We can no longer conduct a trade policy without geostrategic considerations. We Germans have to learn this.

The dependence on the Chinese market is a source of significant debate in Germany, including what exactly this dependence looks like. A recent report from Rhodium Group presented the trends of foreign direct investment in China which indicate that dependence on China is increasingly concentrated in a small number of very large German companies. Major German players, mainly in the automotive and chemical industries, are making significant investments in China. At the same time, other players, often smaller ones, are reluctant. In his book, Röttgen refers to this reliance of major German industries on China as posing an “infection risk” to the rest of the German economy.

Any German response to China should be part of a collective “Chinese strategy of the West,” writes Röttgen. This strategy must be based on two main premises. The first premise is that the containment strategy used to deal with the Soviet Union will not work for China. The second is that the future of the international order will be determined by those who shape the rules and norms. “There is no doubt,” he writes, “whoever dominates in the key technologies of the future will also dominate the international standards system.”

A European contribution to this future of international standards are regulations and projects that realize European digital sovereignty. This means that Europe wants to assert itself independently not only from China but also from the United States. European and American approaches to data privacy, competition laws as they apply to tech companies, and regulation of artificial intelligence are not very synchronized. Röttgen welcomes the EU-US Trade and Technology Councilwhich aims to try to converge American and European perspectives.

Germany is currently drafting a China strategy, and very little of what it will contain is known to the public. However, a trendline towards a more assertive stance becomes evident. Prime Minister Scholz has been reluctant to make sweeping changes to Germany’s approach to China. However, Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock and other officials from Scholz’s Green and Free Democratic Party coalition partners are slowly pushing the current German government toward a new, cautiously assertive course on China.

Röttgen challenged prevailing views on China in Germany at a time when the German government was not very receptive to such criticism. Berlin is now more open than ever to the direction it has been indicating for some time – a vision closer to that of Washington, D.C. To what extent will the United States and Germany be able to forge a common approach of China has yet to be determined seen. However, voices like Röttgen’s will likely play an important role in shaping it.

James R. Rhodes