[Interview] Germany is feeling consequences of dependence on Russia, says lawmaker

Posted on : 2022-12-13 18:45 KST Modified on : 2022-12-13 18:47 KST
Ralf Stegner of the SPD shares his thoughts on China and the war in Ukraine
German lawmaker Ralf Stegner sits for photos for the Hankyoreh at his office in Berlin on Dec. 13. (Noh Ji-won/The Hankyoreh)
German lawmaker Ralf Stegner sits for photos for the Hankyoreh at his office in Berlin on Dec. 13. (Noh Ji-won/The Hankyoreh)

Ralf Stegner is a lawmaker with the Social Democratic Party (SPD) in Germany’s Bundestag. Having served as deputy chairman of the SPD between 2014 and 2019 and currently sitting on the parliament’s Committee on Foreign Affairs, he wields considerable influence in German politics.

Speaking with the Hankyoreh about the Olaf Scholz-headed coalition government’s changing policy on China on Dec. 8, Stegner said that Germany’s ties with China remain important, but that Berlin is trying to reduce its dependence on Beijing as it relates to core infrastructure and strategic areas.

With the US-China rivalry ratcheting up and the war in Ukraine painting a clearer picture of a new Cold War, Germany, which has long pursued balanced diplomacy, is essentially opting for a course of selective decoupling with China by readjusting and reducing dependence on Beijing in key areas.

This proves an interesting way of navigating the relationship with China for Korea, which has seen considerable boons from the ties it has enjoyed with its neighbor over the last 30 years.

Hani: Germany is currently facing an energy crisis that stems from a dependence on Russia. What lessons has Germany learned from this war?

Stegner: That was a big challenge for us to overcome, but we've managed to do so. We have made treaties with other countries, and have sought out other [energy] sources. We put back some resources into coal plants and other energy sources, to get through the winter. Yet this shows us that it is really not a good thing to be too dependent on one country, especially if this country uses energy as a weapon — or is in a war that's against Ukraine, but also with consequences for Western allies.

Hani: Chancellor Olaf Scholz's visit to China and investments by Chinese companies in Germany have ruffled some feathers within the traffic light coalition. Why do you think this was the case?

Stegner: Well, first of all, I think there is no reason to criticize Olaf Schultz’s visit to Beijing. We have a lot of important relations with China, as we have with other countries. What I felt is that he used the visit — as did the American president one week later — to get the Chinese president to be very clear on Russian threats with nuclear weapons for the first time. So I think it was very successful. Diplomacy is very important.

On the other hand, having talked about dependencies, we want to have good economic relations with China, but we don't want to be dependent on strategic things that could put us in a situation that would be similar to the one we just experienced. Therefore, as we have seen already in the COVID-19 pandemic, we need to be able to produce very important products in Europe, or in Germany, so as to not be dependent on having to import them from China or from other places.

Hani: China has been Germany’s most important trade partner for six years running. Reducing Germany’s economic dependence on China doesn’t appear to be an easy task.

Stegner: Well, I didn’t say that we would want to reduce our dependence on economic relations with China. That’s very important for us and for them. The point was that we have to avoid strategic dependencies for certain goods that are very important to our security or that are crucial for economic development. China investing in German harbors, for instance – what was done in Hamburg was only a minority investment and does not fall under critical infrastructure.

German lawmaker Ralf Stegner sits for photos for the Hankyoreh at his office in Berlin on Dec. 13. (Noh Ji-won/The Hankyoreh)
German lawmaker Ralf Stegner sits for photos for the Hankyoreh at his office in Berlin on Dec. 13. (Noh Ji-won/The Hankyoreh)
Hani: The coalition has said it is working on a new strategy on China. How are these efforts coming along?

Stegner: The discussions have just begun. I want to stress once again that we know we have to have diplomatic and economic relations with every part of the world. What we cannot let happen are strategic dependencies that endanger our national security.

Hani: Does the possibility of China invading Taiwan factor in among the main motivations for Germany to reduce its dependence on China? German press have reported that your Ministry for Economic Affairs and Climate Action expects that China might try to annex Taiwan by 2027.

Stegner: I don't think that it is very smart to give public statements like that. I would not want to comment on that. I think China knows very well that actions like these would have consequences.

Hani: The European Union currently regards its relationship with China as a “systemic rivalry,” and there have been reports that they are going to change the term to “all-out rivalry.” Do you think Germany will switch over to using this term as well?

Stegner: I don't see very much sense in public expressions like that, because where's the improvement? I don't know whether that really helps.

Hani: How long do you think the war will last?

Stegner: Hopefully, Russia will not be successful with invading a neighbor[ing country] and violating national borders. Therefore, we support Ukraine with political, diplomatic, humanitarian, economic and military means. Yes, I hope the war will end as soon as possible; we should try to help diplomatically so that this is the case. Obviously, negotiations like that can only be finalized by Ukraine itself.

On the other hand, there are many people who only talk about sending weapons and deciding all of that militarily. I don't think that this is the solution. And therefore, I support every diplomatic effort that might be done by the Americans, by the French, with Germany having a part in that and whoever else — the Chinese might use their influence also on Russia.

I think China is not very happy about this development either. Besides all the cruel consequences for the Ukrainian population, there are a lot of other consequences for the world economy and energy.

Hani: You’ve said that you want to see diplomatic efforts to end the war, but neither side shows any sign of backing down. Following Russia's invasion of Crimea in 2014, the Minsk agreements were eventually signed as a diplomatic measure, but still, Russia invaded Ukraine. How can we trust any diplomatic solution?

Stegner: First of all, a negative experience doesn't change the fact that we should always try it [a diplomatic solution] again. And second, diplomacy is always done behind closed doors and it has to be done behind closed doors. Russia has its interests too. The only thing other countries can do is help diplomatic efforts to succeed, as was done with a grain agreement concluded by the Turkish premiere and general secretary of the United Nations. The Turkish premier not being a real peace person, rather, somebody probably knew why he did that, and [he] probably gets his reward for that in other ways.

Hani: This is a territorial problem though, so won’t a peace deal between Russia and Ukraine look different than a grain agreement?

Stegner: All peace agreements in history have been difficult, and have been done behind closed doors, and both sides never wanted to [make concessions]. We’ll see what happens.

Hani: How long do you think the Western support for Ukraine will continue?

Stegner: That's a difficult question. Because part of why Russia is waging this war is to try to influence public opinion in Western democracy. And we are probably more in danger than others that this might fail. As I said before, we have the energy crisis and other issues that make it more difficult. We have to solve those problems so that our population doesn't get tempted by Russian propaganda.

By Noh Ji-won, Berlin correspondent

♦ This interview has been edited for clarity.

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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