Chancellor Olaf Scholz is traveling to China from April 13-16 with a business delegation in tow – but without European participation. Yet the EU needs a coordinated approach and a common stance towards Beijing now more than ever.

The chancellor’s last trip to China was a year and a half ago. Olaf Scholz visited Beijing in November 2022, and the last Sino-German government consultations took place in Berlin in June 2023 – also a purely bilateral affair, although the coalition agreement had announced a European approach, at least for the consultations.

A lot has happened since then: Germany has published a Strategy on China with a clear focus on de-risking, i.e. on the goal of reducing Germany’s dependence on China – defined as partner, competitor and systemic rival in the Strategy – in regard to key technologies and important raw materials. At the same time, the Strategy should be “firmly rooted in the common policy on China of the EU”. This is both sensible and necessary.

After all, in an increasingly geopolitical and fragmented world, a single member state, even an economic power like Germany, is not in a position to assert its interests vis-à-vis China on its own. Moreover, such an approach is becoming increasingly counterproductive for a joint EU China policy, as China is very adept at playing individual member states and the EU against each other.

If, on the other hand, the EU and its member states were to clearly define European interests and always communicate them to Beijing in a coordinated and joint manner, this would bring the entire economic power of the Common Market to bear.

This would at least increase the odds of achieving something in Beijing regarding the increasingly difficult market environment for foreign investors, subsidies exports (in order to reduce industrial overcapacity and conquer foreign markets) and the resulting unfair competition.

Unfortunately, Chancellor Scholz does not have this Europeanized approach in mind. The Federation of German Industries (BDI) will be not joining, just as in 2022. This is regrettable, as the BDI made an important contribution to rethinking European and German China policy with its China paper from 2019. The message that Germany could send with the composition of the delegation is unfavorable: an overly critical attitude towards the largest trading partner seems undesirable.

What is also missing from the Chancellor’s approach is an adequate European response to the fact that China is acting pseudo-neutral in its war of aggression against Ukraine, cultivating a close alliance with the aggressor and apparently circumventing Western sanctions against Russia in various ways.

Against this backdrop, the chancellor’s trip is a missed opportunity to establish the EU as an independent geopolitical player acting out of a position of strength. The increasing tensions between the USA and China highlight the EU’s need to shift from responding to the actions of both superpowers to pursuing its own interests proactively.

The USA has long since defined China as the key challenge of the 21st century and is acting accordingly and quickly: the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), the Chips Act, the planned regulation on outbound investment as well as export controls with extraterritorial effects, including on EU companies, make it abundantly clear that the EU can barely keep up. This course will not change after the US elections – regardless of who wins the White House.

To avoid having to solely react to US advances, a unified European approach to China is more than necessary. Chancellor Scholz could have sent a clear signal if he had traveled to China not alone, but together with other high-ranking EU politicians or heads of government from other member states.

In the run-up to the European elections, he would have had the unique opportunity to travel to China not just as the German chancellor, but explicitly as a European – which, according to a report by Politico in 2022, he also sees himself as. Various compositions of European delegations or mixed business delegations would have been conceivable. Any Europeanization of his trip would have meant significant progress for more coordination at the EU level.

About the authors

Cora Jungbluth is a senior expert in the Europe’s Future Program at the Bertelsmann Stiftung. Her research focus is on China, foreign direct investment and international trade (especially the role of emerging economies).

Anika Laudien is Project Manager in the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Europe’s Future Program. She analyzes the changes taking place in China in order to develop recommendations for German and European policy makers.