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Merkel Hits Back at Minister in China Policy Row

November 23, 2007

Merkel was the first German chancellor to meet Tibet`s exiled spiritual
leader.

Reuters

German Chancellor Angela Merkel hit back at her Foreign Minister
Frank-Walter Steinmeier on Wednesday in a row over China policy that has
highlighted rising tensions in the left-right coalition.

On the day Steinmeier, a Social Democrat, took over as Vice Chancellor,
Merkel defended her decision to meet the Dalai Lama two months ago and
criticised her foreign minister for second-guessing her on the issue.

Merkel was the first German chancellor to meet Tibet's exiled spiritual
leader, a move which angered China and prompted Beijing to cancel
several high-level meetings.

"As Chancellor, I decide whom I meet and where I meet them. I wish
everyone in the government would keep to this position because otherwise
China's respect for us will not increase," she told the Wednesday
edition of top-selling German daily Bild.

The comment was a clear jibe at Steinmeier who has accused her in recent
weeks of putting public relations ahead of diplomatic ties by focusing
on human rights in her dealings with Russia and China.

The row shows how differences in Merkel's "grand coalition" are
spreading from domestic to foreign policy issues as her SPD partners
adopt a more confrontational tone ahead of key state elections next year
and a new federal vote in 2009.

The atmosphere between the two parties, which were forced into a
partnership after Merkel's narrow 2005 election victory, has
deteriorated in the last few weeks, with the SPD shifting to the left to
woo voters back from the surging new Left party.

A new poll for Stern magazine and RTL television showed support for the
SPD had slipped to a year-low of 24 percent compared with a year-high of
40 percent for Merkel's conservatives.

LOW POLL RATINGS

Last week's decision by SPD Vice Chancellor Franz Muentefering to resign
to care for his sick wife have raised fears that the coalition will
descend into bickering and achieve little in its remaining two years in
office.

Muentefering, 67, was seen as a stabilising force who bridged gaps
between the parties. His successor Steinmeier, 51, worked well with
Merkel during Germany's presidencies of the EU and G8 this year, but now
seems intent on distancing himself from her with an eye on his party's
low poll ratings.

Interior Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble, an ally of Merkel, slammed
Steinmeier on Wednesday for his criticism of the chancellor's Dalai Lama
meeting.

"It is absurd. Every other German foreign minister has hosted the Dalai
Lama -- only Mr Steinmeier hasn't," Schaeuble told the Frankfurter
Allgemeine Zeitung.

Some commentators have speculated that the government could collapse
before its term is up, but Merkel rejected that possibility in the Bild
interview.

"Early elections are not a subject we are thinking about," Merkel said,
adding she wanted to use the next two years to introduce practical
reforms despite disagreements on policies like the introduction of a
minimum wage in the postal sector and the privatisation of rail operator
Deutsche Bahn.
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