There is not much Germany can do to influence the domestic course of China under the new leadership about to assume control in Beijing. It is, however, increasingly clear that China can expect rough waters if the other two economic power centers − Europe and the U.S. − get into deeper trouble. China is vulnerable when it comes to not only the economic challenges at home, but also those in the United States, Japan, and Europe. China’s clout may be growing on the world stage, but it is going to have to be very aware of the frictions and tensions it can generate at home and abroad if it does not understand itself as a partner in the global commonweal of the challenges on this century.
In the meantime, the pursuit of common interests between Berlin and Beijing carries some concerns. If the future of Europe continues to be an uncertain path without achieving a coherent political and economic consensus, individual countries − like Germany − can revert to pursuing their own interests rather than those of a shared European Union policy. Beijing may choose to pick up the phone and dial Berlin rather than Brussels when it comes to dealing with problems, including those it has with the United States. That could seem unsettling to others back on the European continent and in Washington.
Relations with China offer an opportunity − but also a risk − for Germany, the EU, as well as for the U.S. If the fragmentation of Europe continues, there could be a break out over arguments and tensions among the EU members in dealing with a range of issues involving China, be it flash points like Syria or longer ranged issues like human rights or global warming. Without a common platform, the temptation to seek national advantages can grow. With so much uncertainty ahead, there can be catalysts for cooperation, competition, and collisions in the pursuit of resources and influences over them.
That also can also open up vulnerabilities across the Atlantic. Given the choice facing the American voters in November, changing perceptions of China will be caught up in the increasing efforts to get control of the rising American deficits, in which China has a starring role as the largest foreign U.S. creditor. Added to that are tensions over geopolitical flash points and the tendency in both China and the U.S. to portray each other as military rivals in the coming decades. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit this week with Chinese officials over a dispute in the South China Sea signals America’s increased attention to China’s movements. The U.S. will need to maintain a delicate balancing act between tensions with China and China’s rise on the global stage. However, should there be increased levels of confrontation between the U.S. and China due to their global power plays, there could also be some movement in Beijing toward putting their enormous foreign exchange reserves in a more “diversified” portfolio. The ripples of these developments can have a serious impact on transatlantic relations in a fragmenting framework of interests and perceptions of threats.