Robert Habeck: China is calling – the minister takes time for South Korea

Robert Habeck: China is calling – the minister takes time for South Korea
Robert Habeck: China is calling – the minister takes time for South Korea

Vice Chancellor Robert Habeck is actually on his way to China. Before that, he has to take care of a few things in South Korea.

Somewhere back there in the mist, behind the small forests and hills, North Korea, the empire of evil, is said to lie. But despite all the checkpoints with the many soldiers, it can only be guessed at because the press representatives accompanying the minister have to wait in the visitor center about 2.5 kilometers from the border for security reasons.

Yes, yes, Robert Habeck has time. The economics minister’s travel group has actually been on its way to China since Wednesday, but an extensive stop in Korea is planned beforehand.

So you watch an, well, information film, glance over the display boards and showcases, and at least find out afterwards that the Vice Chancellor visited one of the three blue barracks in which representatives of North and South Korea agreed to a ceasefire 71 years ago. The barracks are located exactly on the 38th parallel, which still forms the demarcation line today – and which runs like a brushstroke across the conference table.

China: Habeck’s first visit

The heightened security situation, especially after Putin’s visit to dictator Kim over there, the first in 24 years – all of this has “materialized once again” for him here at this special border, explains Habeck after his return from the silent front. The once bloody battles, the division of the country that is still painful today, all of this has also “reminded him of the history of our country”.

Of course, his days are “actually dominated by economic policy discussions,” and “especially by organizing further access to the South Korean market for German medium-sized companies,” says Habeck. And yet, to a certain extent, this trip is fueled by the anticipation of how things will work out between the minister and China.

But Habeck is taking his time. He is visiting Gyeongbokgung Palace – in English “Palace of Radiant Bliss”, he is examining spaceship-like scanning tunneling microscopes at the Center for Nano-Quantum Technology and, of course, is holding important political discussions. There were a few changes to the itinerary of the trip at short notice, and now it seems as if the Vice Chancellor wants to delay the visit to Germany’s largest trading partner a little further in the final stages.

Habeck has been in office for more than 2.5 years now – he has not visited China once. Waiting any longer would have been a diplomatic affront, but one can assume that the Chinese understood the message as such. It fits into the new relationship between the Germans and them, as they have formulated it in their China strategy.

South Korea is considered “like-minded”

Sure, there was the corona pandemic first. And, of course, Robert Habeck has already been to Singapore at the big German-Pacific Economic Forum. However, since this conference in November 2022 at the latest, there has been a noticeable amount of talk about de-risking. Instead of continuing to blindly become too dependent on the attractive but unfortunately unpredictable giant China, Habeck called on the German economy to diversify.

But where to? When looking for answers to this question, the name South Korea keeps cropping up. Germany’s second-largest trading partner on the Asian continent has one big advantage: it is “like-minded” and is often referred to as a “partner of values” – a democratic constitutional state with freedom of opinion and freedom of the press.

A kind of Far Eastern Germany – which unfortunately also “has to contend with similar challenges”: an ageing society with a low birth rate and a growing shortage of skilled workers, plus comparatively high costs, which is why the domestic industry has long since relocated parts of its production to Vietnam. And last but not least, South Korea’s economy is even more dependent on China than Germany’s due to its geographical proximity.

Robert Habeck does not want to come to China as a supplicant

Despite everything, Habeck is of course campaigning for the relationship to be further developed. But he has already made it clear in South Korea that he will not travel to China as a supplicant. Starting on Saturday, he will hold political talks in Beijing with everyone of rank and name, including various ministers from industry to trade, and possibly even Prime Minister Li Qiang.

However, the focus of the talks, or at least the attention, will be on the escalating trade conflict between China and the European Union. China is flooding the European markets with highly subsidized products at dumping prices, much to the annoyance of domestic manufacturers. In the case of electric cars, the EU Commission recently announced that it would impose additional countervailing duties of up to 38 percent from the beginning of July.

Habeck is not a fan of such measures, he sees the danger of a damaging spiral of tariffs and countermeasures that could ultimately end in a trade war that is harmful to both sides. China has already announced that it will react to possible car tariffs with import restrictions on European pork. And it is clear what Habeck means when he says that the relationship between China and the EU has become “increasingly complex” in recent years – and that is “still the polite way of putting it”.

Habeck cannot promise quick solutions either, only the vague prospect that there could be “solution-oriented formats” in the near future. The omens are “challenging”. After all, Germany is in a special position as a car country, so he can only encourage the Chinese side to talk to each other, “not to let it escalate” and to say “oh, come on, now things are going downhill, let’s fight each other out”. Even Habeck does not sound much more hopeful on this day.

Source: Stern

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