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‘Australians know’: Germany warns against relying on Beijing

By Matthew Knott

August 22, 2023

Germany’s foreign minister has praised Australia for serving as a role model for resisting Chinese economic coercion, labelling the rising superpower a systemic rival too unpredictable and secretive for other nations to rely on.

In a forceful speech in which she repeatedly name-checked China and warned Chinese President Xi Jinping against invading Taiwan, Annalena Baerbock said Beijing’s rise was challenging the “very fundamentals of how we live together in this world”.

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock’s scheduled trip was cancelled after her government jet suffered mechanical problems. CREDIT: AP

Democratic nations such as Australia and Germany need to “de-risk” their economies by seeking alternative export markets and to work together to prevent developing countries from “pivoting towards China”, Baerbock said.

“Here in Australia, you experienced painfully how China is willing to use economic coercion when it imposed restrictions on key exports like wine, meat and coal to exert political pressure,” she said in a virtual event held by the Lowy Institute think tank on Tuesday night.

“You have actually been a role model in not bowing to that pressure. I want to express my great respect for the courage and resilience, as well as the sense of proportion that you demonstrated.”

Baerbock, a member of the German Greens, was en route to Australia last week for her first visit as foreign minister, but her trip was cancelled when the government jet she was travelling on suffered repeated mechanical difficulties.

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China has transformed so markedly that “all economic interactions” must now be viewed through a geopolitical lens, she said.

“China is not always as predictable, transparent and reliable as is needed to allow a stable economic relationship,” she said. “Australians know what this means.”

Australia’s debate about leasing the Port of Darwin to a Chinese company and the banning of Chinese company Huawei from Australia’s 5G network had influenced German policies, she said.

Baerbock has taken a tough line on China, including on human rights, and publicly questioned why Beijing had not called on Russia to end its war against Ukraine when she visited Beijing in April.

Her comments led her Chinese counterpart to respond that “what China needs least are lecturers from the West”.

Baerbock noted Lowy Institute polling showing that 52 per cent of Australians perceive China as more of a security threat than economic partner, up from 12 per cent five years ago.

“You, as a closer neighbour, have realised earlier than us what we have now also laid out in our government’s China strategy: China has changed, and that’s why our policy towards China also needs to change,” she said.

“To us, China is not only a partner, but also, more and more, a competitor and systemic rival.”

Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs Penny Wong meets Baerbock in New Delhi, India in March 2023.

While China serves as a partner on trade, investment and tackling climate change, Baerbock said that it is increasingly a rival “when it comes to the very fundamentals of how we live together in this world: the principles of our international order and respect for human rights”.

Pointing out that half of all the world’s container ships pass through the Taiwan Strait carrying crucial supplies, Baerbock warned: “Any unilateral change in the status quo across the Taiwan Strait would be unacceptable, even more so if this were to include coercive or military means.”

While stressing that Germany did not want to promote a Cold War-style “confrontation between blocs”, she argued that democracies need to do a better job of countering Chinese economic diplomacy in developing nations.

“We see how numerous countries are pivoting more towards China, and we have to be honest about this,” she said. “Often, this is due to a lack of alternatives. We want to change this.” Baerbock said the war in Ukraine had offered Germany a painful lesson about how it had become overly dependent on energy imported from Russia. “We don’t want to repeat that mistake,” she said.

Germany has become the second-biggest donor of military aid to Ukraine after the United States in a stunning reversal of the country’s post-WWII policy not to send weapons into conflict zones.


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