China Sees Opening Left by Trump in Europe, and Quietly Steps In


Much of the world’s attention at the Group of 20 economic summit on Friday and Saturday will be on President Trump’s first meeting with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir V. Putin, with strenuous efforts to decipher the nature of the long-distance bromance between them.

But the leader of the world’s other superpower, Xi Jinping of China, will also be in Hamburg, Germany, ready to slip quietly into the widening gap between Mr. Trump and longtime European allies and to position Beijing as the globe’s newest, biggest defender of a multilateral, rules-based system.

Mr. Xi will have just concluded a state visit with Germany, including bilateral meetings and a small dinner Tuesday night in Berlin with the summit host, Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has made no secret of her differences with Mr. Trump.

Having helped Ms. Merkel open the Berlin Zoo’s new $10 million panda garden (complete with two new Chinese pandas), and watched a German-Chinese youth soccer match, Mr. Xi will have already made a mark.

He has cemented his closeness to Germany and Ms. Merkel, the woman many consider not just the most important leader in Europe, but also the reluctant, de facto leader of the West.

“The election of Trump has facilitated China’s aims in Europe,” said Angela Stanzel, an Asia scholar at the European Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin.

“Trump facilitates China’s narrative of being the new defender of multilateralism and especially global free trade, and China sees Germany as defending that, too, as a kind of sidekick,” she added. “And it fits into the Chinese idea of creating an alternative leadership to the United States.”

Even before this week, Mr. Xi has tried to take advantage of Mr. Trump’s nationalist and protectionist policies and open disdain for multilateral institutions, using a much-publicized speech in Davos, Switzerland, in January to proclaim himself a champion of global trade, much as the United States used to do.

Export-dependent Germany shares China’s view, with Mrs. Merkel defending everything from trade deals to the United Nations and the Paris climate accord, from which Mr. Trump has withdrawn.

Ms. Merkel and Mr. Xi at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin on Tuesday. Their state visit was ahead of the Group of 20 economic summit. CreditGuido Bergmann/German Federal Government, via Reuters

And China recognizes how important Germany has become in influencing European Union policies toward China, including trade and human rights, especially after Britain’s vote to quit the bloc.

Speaking to Mr. Xi in Berlin on Wednesday, Mrs. Merkel said tellingly: “I am delighted to be able to welcome you in a period of unrest in the world, where China and Germany can make an effort to soothe this unrest a bit and to make a somewhat quieter world out of it.” The two countries have “a comprehensive strategic partnership,” she said.

Mr. Xi’s state visit follows another high-level trip to Germany, at the end of May, by the Chinese prime minister, Li Keqiang.

His visit also comes just after Mrs. Merkel, who is up for re-election in September, said that Mr. Trump’s America was no longer a reliably close ally and that Europe must “really take our fate into our own hands.”

In a measure of Mr. Trump’s increasing unpopularity in Germany, her party’s election material now refers to the United States as a “most important partner outside Europe” rather than, as four years ago, its “most important friend.”

There are tensions, of course, between China and Germany, and China and Europe, too, but largely over trade and access to markets.

In the last year especially, Ms. Stanzel said, German officials and the German public have become “more critical of Chinese economic patterns and investments in Germany, especially in key technologies and industries where Germany is known to have a global edge.”

Mrs. Merkel was particularly upset last year, German officials have said, when China bought the cutting-edge German robotics firm so important to manufacturing, Kuka Robotics. The Germans see China moving from demanding technical know-how from European investors to wanting to own the technology outright.

But these problems pale next to Mr. Xi’s fraught relations with Mr. Trump, whose public estimates of their relationship swing wildly.

The latest North Korean missile test is another strain, given Mr. Trump’s public desire that China and Mr. Xi restrain Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions through stepped-up economic sanctions.

President Trump with Mr. Xi at Mr. Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Fla., in April. They have been at odds recently over a variety of topics. CreditDoug Mills/The New York Times

Only last week, Mr. Trump angered China by approving a $1.4 billion arms sale to Taiwan, sanctioning a Chinese bank for evading sanctions on North Korea, warning that America would act to restrict Chinese steel imports and sending an American warship off the coast of contested islands in the South China Sea that Beijing claims.

For all those reasons, suggested Robin Niblett, director of Chatham House, a research group based in London, Mr. Xi is likely to keep a low profile in Hamburg.

“While China would like to gradually ramp up the idea of its global leadership, it would be better in Hamburg to keep the attention on Trump and Putin and the aftermath of Brexit,” he said.

“The timing for Xi is not good,” Mr. Niblett said. “He will feel the risk that Trump may use foreign policy as a more fruitful appeal to his base. China-bashing, though it has some risks, is a pretty safe bet for rallying forces in the U.S.”

The world has shifted since Mr. Xi’s Davos speech, he said. “Xi would prefer nice clear water between a munificent China and an America focused on itself,” he said. “But there’s a lot of trouble out there, and China is getting wrapped up in Trump’s drama, while China likes minimal drama.”

Despite new worries in Europe about China becoming more of a competitor than a partner, Mr. Xi sees another advantage, and a challenge, in keeping the European Union sweet.

China favors regional hegemonies rather than American hyperpower and sees a world of regions, where China, Russia and Europe dominate their respective areas, Mr. Niblett said.

While trying to be dominant in East Asia, China has no interest in ruffling Russia’s feathers, especially with Mr. Putin in an election year and Russia as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council.

So China will take a more watchful role in Hamburg, eager to get along with everyone, but especially the Europeans.

The Chinese see the European Union as “an essential partner for the kind of multilateral, globalized world China wants to see, where each region looks after itself and comes together flexibly to meet global challenges, like climate,” Mr. Niblett said.

“The last thing China wants,” he added, “is to get on worse with the E.U. now that the U.S. relationship is so fickle.”


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