Shannon Tiezzi, editor-in-chief of the Diplomat, assesses German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s recent trip to Beijing in which Scholz was accompanied by 12 CEOs of German companies, including Volkswagen, Merck, and Siemans. Tiezzi writes that the trip indicates that Scholz is returning to his predecessor’s “business-first” approach to China, even as rising tensions between China and the United States threaten to ignite a kinetic war in the South China Sea. But Scholz’s trip may be more indicative of a return to Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik of the 1970s, in which German foreign policy toward the Soviet Union, in the words of Brandt’s closest adviser Egon Bahr, sought “Wandel durch Annaherung” (“change through rapprochement”).
Superficially, Brandt’s Ostpolitik shared some elements of the Nixon administration’s policy of détente. But Nixon and his top foreign policy adviser Henry Kissinger viewed Ostpolitik warily, concerned that Germany’s separate approach to the Soviet Union could divide NATO. It had long been Soviet strategy to weaken NATO by a combination of threats to Berlin and economic and political inducements. In the first volume of his memoirs, Kissinger included a memo he wrote to Nixon warning that Ostpolitik could be used by the Soviets to pry Germany away from the Western alliance. The Soviet price for allowing its East German satellite to renew relations with West Germany and dangling the prospect of German reunification might be German neutrality or at least a German foreign policy conducted independently of Washington. But instead of trying to disrupt Ostpolitik, Nixon sought to, in Kissinger’s words, “embed it in a wider framework” of détente.
Critics of détente, of course, were also critics of Ostpolitik. David Gress of the Hoover Institution noted that Brandt’s goal of German reunification would only come about by the “rollback of Soviet power.” James Burnham was one of America’s chief critics of détente and Ostpolitik. In his “Protracted Conflict” columns in National Review, he warned that Brandt’s opening to the East could lead to the “Finlandization” of Germany (a situation where German foreign policy did not oppose Soviet foreign policy). He wrote that “Brandt’s Ostpolitik is only the latest expression of the fact that everyone is anxious to come to terms with Communism” and “implies acceptance of the so-called Brezhnev Doctrine of the right and duty of all socialist states to defend any socialist state against a threat to socialism.” Détente and Ostpolitik arguably gave the decrepit Soviet system a lifeline that extended its existence into the 1980s.
In her article in the Diplomat, Tiezzi notes that Scholz has approved a deal for China to own a portion of Germany’s port of Hamburg. She quotes from an op-ed written by Scholz defending his trip to Beijing: “China remains an important business and trading partner for Germany and Europe. We do not want to decouple from it.” Tiezzi notes that for China, Scholz’s trip and remarks indicate that Germany and Europe can be persuaded to distance themselves from U.S. policy in the Indo-Pacific, and will hopefully “ensure China’s access to European research and goods that can help advance [President] Xi’s new focus on cutting-edge tech.” Chinese media, Tiezzi noted, was “triumphalist” in commenting on Scholz’s visit. The Global Times noted that Scholz and Xi “agreed on enhancing cooperation and maintaining dialogue, rejecting decoupling and bloc confrontation, vowing to further expand cooperation beyond traditional areas into new sectors such as energy and digitalization and increasing mutual political trust for a stable China-Germany relationship.” It called the visit a “touchstone for European strategic autonomy” that will frustrate U.S. efforts “to gang up for forming anti-China small cliques.” The article noted that the two leaders “expressed clear opposition” to U.S. efforts to decouple from China.
Scholz’s visit is also an indication that one of our most important NATO allies feels free to embark on an independent policy toward China. At least Nixon and Kissinger sought to shape and guide Brandt’s Ostpolitik toward Soviet Russia in the early 1970s. There is no sign that the Biden administration feels similarly about Germany’s Asia-version of Ostpolitik. Perhaps that is because, rhetoric aside, the Biden administration’s policy of competitive engagement is not that different from Scholz’s new Ostpolitik. It is détente with a communist giant all over again.