After Merkel: What Role for Germany on Global Stage?

As Germany prepares to elect a new leader in elections scheduled for September 26, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s successor will face a series of immediate geopolitical challenges. Among the most pressing is the rise of China.

Beijing’s economic push into Europe, part of its “Belt and Road” initiative, has seen Chinese state-owned firms invest in critical infrastructure including ports, railroads and highways.

Hamburg is Germany’s biggest port, handling more than 8.5 million shipping containers every year, and a key artery for Europe’s largest economy and exporter. If current plans are approved, a large share of the port will soon be sold to Beijing. 

More than 30% of the containers handled at Hamburg are shipped to and from China, four times more than second-place United States. Chinese state-owned shipping firm Cosco wants to buy one-third of the shares in the city’s Tollerort terminal. 

Hamburger Hafen and Logistik AG (HHLA), the company that currently owns Tollerort, says the deal is a natural step in an evolving relationship. “We want to bind Cosco, with whom we have been working together for 36 years, closer to us,” HHLA boss Angela Titzrah recently told journalists. Hamburg’s mayor also supports the deal and says it is vital for growth in the face of competition from Rotterdam in the Netherlands and Antwerp in Belgium.

Critics say Germany should be much more wary of the deal. Jürgen Hardt is a lawmaker from Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats. “In China, business plans are not mainly the reason to do business, but (are instead) political decisions of the Communist Party,” Hardt told VOA. “Therefore, we should look very carefully on such a deal. I would prefer to have an exchange of shares between Hamburg harbor and maybe Shanghai harbor.” 

Hardt says this is unlikely, as China does not allow foreign companies to own its infrastructure.

China: friend or foe?

Germany’s geopolitical dilemma echoes that of Hamburg. Is China friend or foe?

The European Union describes China as a “negotiating partner, economic competitor and systemic rival.” In recent years, tensions have grown over Beijing’s treatment of its Muslim Uyghur population, the crackdown on democratic rights in Hong Kong and military expansion in the South China Sea. Germany has found itself caught in the middle, says analyst Liana Fix of the Körber-Stiftung Foundation of International Affairs in Berlin. 

“Europe and the European Union is undecided about which way to pursue. On the one side they feel the pressure from the United States. On the other hand, there are also economic interests especially for member states that are highly dependent on China,” Fix told VOA.

Germany’s leadership could be out of step with the population, according to a recent poll by the Körber-Stiftung Foundation.

“We asked the German public to what extent they would support sanctions towards China, even if it hurts their economy, for human rights issues for human rights violations. And there the majority of Germans said they would support sanctions against China,” Fix said. 


With Russia too, Germany finds itself caught between East and West. Despite Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine, Chancellor Merkel has pushed ahead with the construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which was completed earlier this month. It will carry Russian gas directly to Germany, bypassing Ukraine, which has until now benefitted from lucrative transit fees.

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy offered Merkel a blunt warning following her visit to Kyiv last month. “I believe that (Nord Stream 2) is a weapon. I believe that not to notice that this is a dangerous weapon, not only for Ukraine but for the whole of Europe, is wrong,” Zelenskiy told reporters August 22. 

The United States also opposes the pipeline and has imposed sanctions on Russian companies involved. That has triggered some resentment in Germany, says analyst Fix. “The strong opposition from the United States has to some extent led to a reaction in Germany which said, ‘OK, why is the United States getting involved in our energy policy?’” Fix said.

With Germany phasing out coal and nuclear power over the coming years, a reliable supply of gas is seen as crucial, according to Rüdiger Erben, a member of the Social Democratic party in the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt. “Germany has experienced over many years that Russia is actually a very reliable partner when we’re talking about energy questions,” he told VOA. 

Europe’s ‘strategic autonomy’ 

Meanwhile, the European Union is seeking what it calls greater “strategic autonomy” to reduce Europe’s reliance on the United States for its security. France is highly supportive of the move, but Germany has stopped short of endorsing the formation of any “EU army.”

The United States signed a deal with Britain and Australia last week to help Canberra build a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines, in the process cancelling a deal with France to design diesel-electric subs. “It’s a good opportunity to remind ourselves, to reflect on the need to make the issue of European strategic autonomy a priority. This shows that we must survive on our own,” the EU’s ‘s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, told reporters September 16.

Merkel’s successor

Navigating global affairs won’t be easy for Germany’s next leader, says analyst Gero Neugebauer of the Freie University in Berlin. 

“The majority of German people see that Germany is currently in a crisis situation. Globalization is at play. The war in Afghanistan. Conflict in Europe. The question of what impact globalization has on jobs. Migration. Climate change.”

Neugebauer added that the main candidates in the election are not well known outside Germany. “Merkel’s successor will have either limited international experience, or none at all.” 


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