by Chaoting Cheng

Recently, Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed that the era when the United States and Russia decided the most important global issues was over, and that China and Germany―in terms of political and economic power―were emerging as superpowers. The words of this Russian strongman indicate his basic judgment of the current world geopolitical power landscape.


Indeed, China’s rapid rise is universally recognized. Lee Kuan Yew, an Asian wise man and former Prime Minister of Singapore, commented on it, “The size of China’s displacement of the world balance is such that the world must find a new balance. It is not possible to pretend that this is just another big player. This is the biggest player in the history of the world.” A broad consensus has emerged in the U.S. that China is its greatest strategic challenger, surpassing the former Soviet Union in terms of the comprehensive national power. On the other hand, Germany is just a middle power, having no strength to match any superpower. In economic terms, Germany’s GDP is only $3.8 trillion, far less than China’s $14 trillion and the U.S.’ $21 trillion. In military terms, Germany is actually weaker than France as it lacks large-scale offensive weapons and has no nuclear strike force; in addition, its armed forces are too small, having only 265,000 personnel. In political terms, Germany has a heavy historical burden as a defeated country. Although Germany’s economic power is more than that of Britain and France, its political status is lower than that of the latter. Germany’s efforts to pursue the status of permanent member of the Security Council at the UN have failed several times. So why did Putin claim that Germany was also an emerging superpower? Given that Putin is the powerful leader of a former superpower, these words naturally drew widespread interest.


It is a fact that Germany has in recent years become increasingly assertive in the face of the first-class great powers such as the U.S., China and Russia. The U.S. is the leader of the Western free world and provider of security for Germany. However, since Trump took office in 2017, Germany and the U.S. have been at odds with each other. On major issues such as the North Stream-II gas pipeline, Huawei’s involvement in 5G, and raising military spending to 2 percent of its GDP, Germany did not follow U.S. instructions. Merkel even refused Trump’s invitation to the G7 summit, citing the Corona pandemic. All of these conflicts made Trump quite angry. In order to tame Germany, Trump ordered the withdrawal of more than 10,000 U.S. troops from Germany without consulting with Merkel, plunging the solid post-World War II German-American relations into crisis.


In terms of relations with China, Germany’s position has also become increasingly assertive since the outbreak of Corona pandemic. Germany has repeatedly criticized China over the Xinjiang and Hong Kong issues, and has even represented 39 countries in the UN General Assembly to accuse China of human rights abuses. The political relations between Germany and China are worsening, while the economic and trade ties are still close. In addition, Merkel’s government insists on maintaining the harsh sanctions against Russia imposed after its dismemberment of Ukraine’s Crimea. Thus, the self-important Russian president Putin has to acknowledge the growing influence of the former defeated country.


So, does Germany’s increasingly assertive foreign policy mean that its great power ambitions are growing in the time of world chaos? Is the previous ambitious Germany that longed for the “Place in the Sun” coming back? Nevertheless, that is not the case, and the German political elites have a clear sense of its position and strength. The pillar of German foreign and security policies remain the transatlantic partnership. Berlin intends to assume more responsibility in international political and security affairs, provided it is under Washington’s leadership and within the framework of NATO. Germany’s purpose is to reduce the burden on the United States rather than to seek independence. In this regard, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer (AKK), Germany’s defense minister and chairwoman of the ruling Christian Democratic Union (CDU), unreservedly pledged Germany’s allegiance to the United States in a speech on October 23, 2020. She stated:

“The U.S. has integrated us into the West. And that is more than just a geographical location. Germany is firmly anchored in the family of democratic, open societies in the West. The ties to the West anchor us in NATO and EU, closely linking with Washington, Brussels, Paris and London. It positions us correctly and crystal clear against a romantic fixation on Russia—and also against the illiberal corporative state that despises parties and parliaments. Today, the West as a value system is under threat. It is important that Germany firmly commits itself to the West, so that Europe can maintain peace and defend the culture of the West, freedom, the rule of law, the international order based on binding rules for all, and open markets. Only through Germany’s powerful intervention will Europe be able to regain this strength. It is essential that this development takes place in close partnership with the United States. Because only America and Europe together can keep and defend the West in the face of Russia’s unmistakable exercise of power and China’s global ambitions for supremacy.”


With regard to China, she stressed that, as a major export nation, Germany shares the critical position of the United States in many respects, such as China’s long-standing “currency manipulation, violations of intellectual property rights, unequal investment conditions and state-subsidized distortion of competition.” Of course, this does not mean that Berlin fully supports Washington’s every attitude and every advance against China. Germany is interested in a functioning multilateralism, particularly in trade. Germany’s goal is not decoupling but to strengthen the global regulatory framework, with the WTO as the core institution. AKK argues German interests―and those of Europe―need an order that can counter both threats to liberal trade: the aggressively managed state capitalism of China and the temptation of unilateral isolation and decoupling currently in Washington. However, the German solution is not to be equidistant from the U.S. and China, but to address global challenges by strengthening the Western alliance with shared values.


The German Defence Minister stressed that Germany must do something to relieve the burden of the United States as the main force for the maintenance of international order; especially in Germany’s immediate neighbourhood, such as the Baltics, the North Sea, the Balkans, the Middle East, Africa and the Mediterranean, Germany needs a stronger presence. This is not only about promoting democracy and open societies, but also about European security and interests at stake. Heiko Maas, Germany’s foreign minister, recently published an article in the pro-American “Welt am Sonntag,” saying that Europe has “no more responsible security policy partner than the United States,” and that close cooperation between Europe and the United States will help the latter deal with its biggest strategic challenger, China. Mass has also proposed “building a new transatlantic agenda” after the American presidential election. It is clear that the German Foreign Minister is impatient to get into the arms of the United States and to launch a campaign against China.


It is thus clear that the German leading elites are in fact quite self-aware and increasingly tend to stand with the U.S. in the Sino-American rivalry. Berlin seeks to take more responsibility, strengthen the transatlantic partnership and share American burden under its leadership, instead of breaking away from the American control and the Western alliance. This is exactly in accordance with Trump’s demand for higher defense spending to Germany. Putin’s compliment to Germany is more likely regarded by German elites as Russian trick to drive a wedge between Berlin and Washington.