German chancellor’s China visit sparks debate at home

TAIPEI, Taiwan (AP) — The timing of German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s imminent trip to China and what signals he will give to Beijing have raised questions at home, a German member of the European Parliament said Thursday.

Reinhard Butikofer of the Green Party, which is part of the governing coalition, said in Taiwan that Scholz’s one-day trip is “probably the most controversially debated visit in the country for the last 50 years.”

Scholz, who will be in Beijing on Friday, will be the first European leader to visit China since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which Germany has strongly opposed. Beijing has provided Moscow with diplomatic backing, accused the U.S. and NATO of provoking the attack and scathingly criticized punishing economic sanctions imposed on Russia.

Some in the ranks of Scholz’s three-party governing coalition have questioned at least the timing of his visit. His trips to Ukraine and Russia in February also stirred controversy.

Butikofer, part of a delegation of European lawmakers in Taiwan, spoke to a joint news conference from his hotel room, where he was under quarantine after testing positive for COVID-19.

“Just as in other European countries and the EU, … China policy will be in transformation, in transition for some time,” Butikofer said. “We cannot return to the China policy of yesterday here, because the realities have changed.”

Scholz has pledged to use his trip to make the case for Chinese moderation and assistance in calming the situations with Ukraine and Taiwan.

In the face of Chinese threats to annex Taiwan by military force, the self-governing island republic has drawn increasing support from Western politicians, even while their governments maintain only unofficial relations with Taipei in deference to Beijing.

Butikofer said Germany’s governing coalition had agreed on a first-ever “clear expression of support for Taiwan’s democracy against China’s aggression,” as well as Taiwan’s “meaningful participation” in international organizations from which it is currently excluded at China’s insistence.

Butikofer is one of five members of the European Parliament banned from visiting China, a step taken by Beijing after the EU, Britain, Canada and the United States launched coordinated sanctions against officials in China over human rights abuses in the far-western Xinjiang region.

The European Parliament has said it won’t ratify a long-awaited business investment deal with China as long as sanctions against its legislators remain in place.

Visiting along with Butikofer were legislators Els Van Hoof of Belgium, Sjoerd Sjoerdsma of Holland and Mykola Kniazhytskyi of Ukraine.

In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian called the lawmakers’ visit a “clumsy political hype-up” and said efforts by Taiwan’s governing Democratic Progressive Party to garner foreign support are “doomed to fail.”

At the news conference, Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu said the delegation’s visit “demonstrates the strength of the relations between Taiwan and the European Union and the bond that unites us with like-minded democracies across the globe.”

Sjoerdsma said the visit had special resonance following last month’s twice-a-decade congress of China’s ruling Communist Party, at which Chinese leader Xi Jinping reiterated Beijing’s determination to “reunify” with Taiwan. The sides split amid civil war in 1949 and the vast majority of Taiwanese reject Beijing’s calls to accept Chinese rule.

“We have a message to Beijing and I think the core message of our visit here is … that Taiwan is not to be isolated, but that contacts will only increase, that we will not be intimidated, that we will be coming over more often, and that our relations and our friendships are not to be determined by others,” Sjoerdsma said.

Scholz’s visit to Beijing was also criticized by Hong Kong pro-democracy activist Nathan Law, who said it risked sending mixed messages over the Ukraine invasion.

“German Chancellor Scholz’s visit is damaging the unity that the world has against Russia’s war efforts,” Law told The Associated Press during a visit to Taiwan.

Scholz’s trip is “definitely giving a lot of opportunity for Xi Jinping to see it as a badge of honor, to see it as means to dismiss the unity of the free world and silently to decrease pressure for Russia,” said LLaw, who fled arrest in Hong Kong during a Beijing-ordered crackdown on dissidents in the semi-autonomous Chinese city. “I think this is such a bad move.”

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Associated Press video journalists Johnson Lai and Taijing Wu contributed to this story.

Copyright © 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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