US Secretary of State Antony Blinken probably thought that in his self-appointed role as the world’s policeman, it was his prerogative to check out what is going on among Germany, China and Russia that he wasn’t privy to. However, Blinken’s call to Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi on Friday (December 23) turned out to be a fiasco.
Most certainly, his intention was to gather details on two high-level exchanges that Chinese President Xi Jinping had on successive days last week – with German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier and the chairman of the United Russia Party and former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev respectively.
Blinken likely made an intelligent guess that Steinmeier’s phone call to Xi on Tuesday and Medvedev’s surprise visit to Beijing and his meeting with Xi on Wednesday might not have been coincidental.
Medvedev’s mission would have been to transmit some highly sensitive message from Russian President Vladimir Putin to Xi. Recent reports had indicated that Moscow and Beijing were working on a meeting between Putin and Xi later this month.
Steinmeier is an experienced diplomat who held the post of foreign minister from 2005 to 2009 and again from 2013 to 2017, as well as of vice-chancellor of Germany from 2007 to 2009 – all during the period Angela Merkel was the chancellor (2005- 2021). Merkel left a legacy of a surge in Germany’s relations with both Russia and China.
Steinmeier is a senior politician belonging to the Social Democratic Party, same as the present chancellor Olaf Scholz. It is certain that Steinmeier’s call with Xi was in consultation with Scholz. This is one thing.
Most important, Steinmeier had played a seminal role in negotiating the two Minsk Agreements (2014 and 2015), which provided for a package of measures to stop the fighting in the Donbas in the downstream of the US-sponsored coup in Kiev.
When the Minsk agreements began unraveling by 2016, Steinmeier stepped in with an ingenious idea that later came to be known as the Steinmeier Formula spelling out the sequencing of events spelled out in the agreements.
Specifically, the Steinmeier formula called for elections to be held in the separatist-held territories of the Donbas under Ukrainian legislation and the supervision of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. It proposed that if the OSCE judged the balloting to be free and fair, then a special self-governing status for the territories would be initiated.
Of course, all that is history now. Merkel “confessed” recently in an interview with Zeit newspaper that in reality, the Minsk agreement was a Western attempt to buy “invaluable time” for Kiev to rearm itself.
Given this complex backdrop, Blinken would have sensed something was amiss when Steinmeier had a call with Xi Jinping out of the blue, and Medvedev made a sudden appearance in Beijing the next day and was received by the Chinese president. Notably, Beijing’s readouts were rather upbeat on China’s relationship with Germany and Russia.
Xi put forward a three-point proposal to Steinmeier on the development of China-Germany relations and stated that “China and Germany have always been partners of dialogue, development, and cooperation as well as partners for addressing global challenges.”
Similarly, in the meeting with Medvedev, he underscored that “China is ready to work with Russia to constantly push forward China-Russia relations in the new era and make global governance more just and equitable.”
Both readouts mentioned Ukraine as a topic of discussion, with Xi stressing that “China stays committed to promoting peace talks” (to Steinmeier) and “actively promoted peace talks” (to Medvedev).
But Blinken went about his mission clumsily by bringing to the fore the contentious US-China issues, especially “the current Covid-19 situation” in China and “the importance of transparency for the international community.”
It comes as no surprise that Wang sternly lectured Blinken not to “engage in dialogue and containment at the same time,” or to “talk cooperation, but stab China simultaneously.”
Wang said, “This is not reasonable competition, but irrational suppression. It is not meant to properly manage disputes, but to intensify conflicts. In fact, it is still the old practice of unilateral bullying. This did not work for China in the past, nor will it work in the future.”
Specifically, on Ukraine, Wang said, “China has always stood on the side of peace, of the purposes of the UN Charter, and of the international society to promote peace and talks. China will continue to play a constructive role in resolving the crisis in China’s own way.” Judging from the US State Department readout, Blinken failed to engage Wang in a meaningful conversation on Ukraine.
Indeed, Germany’s recent overtures to Beijing in quick succession – Chancellor Scholz’s high-profile visit to China last month with a delegation of top German CEOs and Steinmeier’s phone call last week – have not gone down well in Washington.
US President Joe Biden’s administration expects Germany to coordinate with Washington first instead of taking its own initiatives toward China. (Interestingly, Xi Jinping underscored the importance of Germany preserving its strategic autonomy.)
The current pro-American foreign minister of Germany, Annalena Baerbock, distanced herself from Chancellor Scholz’s China visit. Evidently, Steinmeier’s phone call to Xi confirms that Scholz is moving according to a plan to pursue a path of constructive engagement with China, as Merkel did, no matter the state of play in the United States’ tense relationship with China.
That said, discussing peacemaking in Ukraine with China is a daring move on the part of the German leadership at the present juncture when the Biden administration is deeply engaged in a proxy war with Russia and has every intention to support Ukraine “for as long as it takes.”
But there is another side to it. Germany has been internalizing its anger and humiliation during the past several months. Germany cannot but feel that it had been played in the countdown to the Ukraine conflict – something particularly galling for a country that is genuinely Atlanticist in its foreign-policy orientation.
German ministers have expressed displeasure publicly that American oil companies are brazenly exploiting the ensuing energy crisis to make windfall profits by selling gas at three to four times the domestic price in the US.
Germany also fears that the Biden administration’s Inflation Reduction Act, building on foundational climate and clean-energy investments, may lead to the migration of German industry to the US.
The unkindest cut of all has been the destruction of the Nord Stream gas pipelines. Germany must have a fairly good idea as to the forces that were behind that terrorist act, but it cannot even call them out and must suppress its sense of humiliation and indignation.
The destruction of the Nord Stream pipelines makes a revival of the German-Russian relationship an extremely tortuous affair. For any nation with a proud history, it is a bit too much to accept being pushed around like a pawn.
Scholz and Steinmeier are seasoned politicians and would know when to dig in and hunker down. In any case, China is a crucially important partner for Germany’s economic recovery. Germany can ill afford to let the US destroy its partnership with China and reduce it to a vassal state.
When it comes to the Ukraine war, Germany has become a frontline state, but it is Washington that determines Western tactics and strategy. Germany estimates that China is uniquely placed to be a peacemaker in Ukraine. The signs are that Beijing is warming up to that idea, too.
M K Bhadrakumar is a former Indian diplomat. Follow him on Twitter @BhadraPunchline.