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Monday, July 7, 2014, 10:18

Merkel visit amid mixed expectations

By Julia Marie Ewert (China Daily)

German Chancellor Angela Merkel embarked on her seventh visit to China since she took office in 2005.

Relations between China and Germany have been amicable lately, and both sides are interested in keeping it that way. Bilateral economic relations are sound and political issues have taken the backseat. Keeping in mind that only three months ago, during Xi's visit to Germany, bilateral ties, established in 1972, were upgraded to a "comprehensive strategic partnership", no landmark political agreements should be expected.

According to a statement by the German government, regional and international politics are on the table. However, with no concrete topics of discussion announced so far, it remains to be seen whether sensitive issues such as Japan's recent reinterpretation of Article 9 of its Constitution or the protests in Hong Kong will be raised. Merkel could raise the Ukraine crisis, though, an issue that Xi was not keen to engage in during his visit to Germany in late March. Considering the recent $400-billion Sino-Russian gas deal, it is unlikely that Xi's reservation will have changed.

Yet the main focus of the visit is business. Along with Li, Merkel will participate in the inauguration of the high-level German-Chinese Advisory Economic Committee in Beijing. Xi's visit to Germany in March led to the signing of several large-scale deals, among them with Siemens, Volkswagen, BMW, Daimler and Air Berlin, Germany's largest airline after Lufthansa. German recycling company Alba signed a memorandum of understanding with the city of Jieyang, Guangdong province, in March to cooperate in recycling.

It is therefore no surprise that German tabloid Bild reported that apart from several members of different parties across the German Bundestag, Merkel's delegation once again will include chief executives from Siemens, Volkswagen, Airbus, Deutsche Bank, Lufthansa and Alba.

During her first part of the trip to Chengdu, Merkel visited the local Volkswagen factory, one of 17 in China. Volkswagen has said that it plans to invest about 150 billion yuan ($24.17 billion) in China by the end of 2018. Following China's "Go-West" strategy, German companies have expanded their geographical area of activity with many of them having set up shop around Chengdu and Chongqing. The German Chamber of Commerce office in Chengdu, the first of its kind in West China, was opened in September 2011. This trend is reinforced by Merkel's choice of Chengdu as the first stop on her trip to China.

The majority of the more than 100 German companies active in the region are in the fields of engineering and the high-tech sector. The composition of the business delegation suggests that German companies are keen to expand cooperation especially in these fields. However, many of the big corporations have increased their focus on renewables - a win-win field for cooperation that China is very interested in. A possible deal on recycling could contribute to the overall cooperation in sustainable development. Merkel will also open a conference on urbanization in Chengdu - another field that China and Germany are cooperating on.

Not only cooperation in sustainable development looks promising. Germany's successful dual education system has already been put into practice in several Chinese cities, such as Nanjing by Bosch and Siemens, for a few years. It is likely to be further expanded following Merkel's visit. The Volkswagen Group declared in July 2013 to bring the German dual education system to all their plants in China - Merkel's visit to the Chengdu plant could initiate the transfer. A cooperation center on training of instructors already exists in Chongqing.

To complete her visit, Merkel would meet members of the German-Chinese Dialogue Board. Other items on her itinerary are a visit to a project that takes care of migrant workers' children in Chengdu, a speech addressed to students of Tsinghua University and a visit to the Temple of Heaven in Beijing where Li and her delegation will meet German and Chinese students, which will formally conclude the German-Chinese Language Year of 2013-14.

Despite the importance of Sino-German economic and trade relations, Merkel's visit comes at a time when numerous global trouble spots could offer the opportunity to expand bilateral political cooperation. And decisions taken by Xi and Merkel will decide whether this visit will push relations to a higher level or whether it will be business as usual.

The author is a researcher with the EU-Asia Centre.

 
 
 
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