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Germany Seeks to Patch Up Ties with China

January 23, 2008

By Ralf Beste
Der Spiegel, 21 January 2007

In the wake of Germany's tiff with China over Merkel's meeting with the
Dalai Lama, Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier has secretly gone
to great lengths to reestablish a working relationship with Beijing. But
diplomats believe China is unlikely to forgive Germany any time soon.

  The breakfast guest was carefully shielded from the media, in an
effort to prevent journalists from getting a glimpse of Chinese Foreign
Minister Yang Jiechi as he walked into the Ritz-Carlton hotel in
Washington's Georgetown neighborhood at about 8:30 on a mild November
morning.

Inside, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier shook hands with
Yang with a certain amount of trepidation. Steinmeier still had
unpleasant memories of his last meeting, in New York, with his Chinese
counterpart, who had spent a full 21 minutes serving up a litany of
complaints on behalf of his government. By meeting with the Dalai Lama,
Jiechi told Steinmeier, German Chancellor Angela Merkel had offended his
people and gambled away Beijing's trust.

But this time Steinmeier quickly noticed that the tone had changed.
Yang, who had preferred Chinese when lecturing Steinmeier in New York,
was speaking English again. He even congratulated Steinmeier on his
inauguration as Germany's new vice chancellor.

The breakfast, held in a hotel suite rented specifically for the
occasion, lasted 45 minutes. Then Steinmeier quickly said his goodbyes
so that he could speak to German journalists waiting in front of the
hotel about the upcoming Middle East summit in Annapolis.

The Georgetown meeting marked the beginning of an almost two-month
period of behind-the-scenes diplomacy aimed at defusing a deep crisis in
Chinese-German relations.

Since Merkel received the Tibetan Dalai Lama at the Chancellery on Sep.
23, 2007, the relationship between Berlin and Beijing has been nothing
short of frosty. A scheduled dialogue over human rights and the
constitutional state was cancelled (more...). The chancellor has not
spoken with her Chinese counterpart, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, in more
than three months.

Steinmeier and Yang could only conduct their diplomatic efforts to
repair the damage in secret. The outcome will be on display on Tuesday.
If all goes well, Yang will pay a visit to Berlin, where he plans to
attend a conference on Iran's nuclear program. The two foreign ministers
plan to meet separately before the conference -- but this time in full
view of the public, and with a press conference scheduled after the meeting.

Only a few of Steinmeier's close associates were kept informed about the
weeks of secret negotiations between the Germans and the Chinese. Not a
word was mentioned about the effort at the daily meetings of senior
officials at the Foreign Office, and even Merkel's Chancellery was not
kept in the loop. "It was a classic piece of diplomacy," says one of the
people involved, adding that it was also "an extremely difficult exercise."

At their meeting in Georgetown, the two ministers agreed to state their
positions in an exchange of letters, thereby establishing a new basis
for talks. Steinmeier and Yang each wrote two letters, in which every
word was carefully considered. The negotiating team in Berlin even met
on New Year's Eve to fine-tune the wording. Beijing's final response
arrived in Berlin last Friday.

The Chinese wrote that they wanted Germany's assurance that, despite
Merkel's reception of the Dalai Lama, it would continue to -- at the
very least -- respect the unity of China, including Tibet and Taiwan.
During a similar controversy in 1996, Steinmeier's predecessor, Klaus
Kinkel, even had to assure the Chinese that Germany would no longer
intervene in China's internal affairs, and that it would not discuss
differences on the issue of human rights "in a spirit of confrontation."

The Germans were keen to avoid their statements being construed as
kowtowing to the Chinese. Steinmeier's negotiators insist that they did
not promise "non-intervention" or that Germany would refrain from
criticizing China on human rights issues. "We did not pay any price,"
they say.

But placating the government in Beijing wasn't Steinmeier's only
challenge. The chancellor will also be paying careful attention to
whether Germany isn't making too much of a sacrifice to mend ties --
despite her call last week for "good, intensive relations" with China.

In addition to straining relations with Beijing, the spat over Merkel's
meeting with the Dalai Lama sparked an all-too-public dispute over
foreign policy within Germany's ruling grand coalition of Social
Democrats and Christian Democrats. The aftershocks can still be felt
today. For instance, although Steinmeier informed Merkel about the
meeting in Georgetown and his intended correspondence with Yang, he did
not clue her in on the details.

 From the standpoint of the Foreign Office, the correspondence merely
reestablishes the "formal workability" of relations. According to
Steinmeier's staff, the two governments are still a long way from a
trusting, cooperative relationship.

Diplomats at the Foreign Office believe that Chinese President Hu Jintao
and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao will not be so quick to forgive the
chancellor for receiving the Dalai Lama. When Merkel visited Beijing a
short time before the meeting with the Dalai Lama, Hu and Wen gave the
chancellor the red carpet treatment -- an effort, which, to the Chinese,
made their expectations of Merkel abundantly clear.

According to one of Steinmeier's advisors, the situation is reminiscent
of former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's dispute over the Iraq war with
US President George W. Bush. It eventually ended in telephone calls,
public handshakes and even friendly conversations at summit meetings,
says the advisor, "but the mistrust never went away."
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