In a much-scrutinised meeting with President Xi Jinping in Beijing, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz urged China to exert its influence on Russia, while the Chinese leader repeated a call for talks between Moscow and Ukraine and warned against the conflict going nuclear.
Mr Scholz is in Beijing for a one-day visit that has drawn criticism over China’s tacit support for Russia, lingering controversies over economic ties and human rights issues.
It comes after Mr Xi further cemented his authoritarian rule at a major Communist Party congress last month.
Mr Scholz’s visit reflects the importance of Germany’s trade ties with China, the world’s second-largest economy, particularly in the car and manufacturing sectors.
Mercedes-Benz alone sold 758,863 cars in China last year, more than in any other country, according to company figures.
Mr Scholz, who is travelling with several top German business leaders, received a formal welcome from Mr Xi, who was recently reappointed head of the ruling Communist Party, at the Great Hall of the People in the heart of Beijing.
Mr Xi noted that Mr Scholz’s visit comes as the two countries mark more than 50 years of diplomatic relations dating back to when they relaunched economic exchanges, despite their Cold War rivalry, that remain a key part of the relationship to this day.
“At present, the international situation is complex and changeable,” Mr Xi was quoted as saying by state broadcaster CCTV.
“As influential powers, China and Germany should work together in times of change and chaos to make more contributions to world peace and development.”
On Ukraine, Mr Xi “pointed out that China supports Germany and the EU in playing an important role in promoting peace talks and promoting the building of a balanced, effective and sustainable European security framework”, CCTV reported.
The international community should “call on all parties concerned to exercise rationality and restraint, conduct direct contacts as soon as possible, and create conditions for the resumption of negotiations (and) jointly oppose the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons”, Mr Xi said.
Without offering evidence, Russian leader Vladimir Putin has repeated Moscow’s unproven allegation that Ukraine is plotting a false-flag attack involving a radioactive dirty bomb that it would try to pin on Russia.
Ukraine has strongly rejected the allegation, and its western allies have dismissed it as “transparently false”.
Ukraine argued that Russia might be making the allegation to serve as a cover for its own possible plot to detonate a dirty bomb.
Mr Scholz is the first leader from the Group of Seven leading industrialised nations to meet with Mr Xi since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, which was first detected in China in 2019, and the first European leader to visit China since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which Germany has strongly opposed.
The diplomatically delicate trip comes as Germany and the European Union work on their strategy towards an increasingly assertive and authoritarian Beijing.
Beijing has provided Moscow with diplomatic backing by repeatedly calling for peace talks while refusing to support measures at the United Nations criticising Russia’s invasion.
It has also accused the US and Nato of provoking the attack and scathingly criticised economic sanctions imposed on Russia.
In his opening remarks, Mr Scholz referred directly to the conflict that has created millions of refugees and upended world food and energy markets, saying “We come together at a time of great tension”, according to German news agency DPA.
“In particular, I want to highlight the Russian war against Ukraine, which poses many problems for our rules-based world order,” it quoted Mr Scholz as saying.
Mr Scholz also touched on global hunger, climate change and developing world debt as important issues, DPA reported.
At a later news conference, Mr Scholz said he told Mr Xi that “it’s important for China to exert its influence on Russia”.
“President Xi and I agree that nuclear threats are irresponsible and highly dangerous. By using nuclear weapons, Russia would cross a line that the international community has drawn together,” he said.
Mr Scholz also said he brought up human rights and market access, and told Mr Xi that any change in the status of self-governing Taiwan “can only happen peacefully and by mutual agreement”.
China claims the island republic as its own territory, to be brought under its control by force if necessary.
In an apparent reference to European legislators and the Baltic state of Lithuania that China has banned and boycotted over their relations with Taiwan, Mr Scholz said: “It is also important to be clear that economic measures against individual EU member states are directed against the entire EU single market, and sanctions against EU lawmakers are not acceptable for us.”
Mr Scholz has faced criticism for making the visit to China so soon after Mr Xi’s triumph at last month’s congress, at which he promoted allies who support his vision of tighter control over society and the economy and a more confrontational approach to the West.
The visit is also occurring amid rising tensions over Taiwan and follows a UN report that said Chinese human rights violations against Uighurs and other ethnic groups in its Xinjiang region may amount to crimes against humanity.
Mr Scholz has been accompanied on the trip by about a dozen top German business leaders, including the chief executives of Volkswagen, BMW, BASF, Bayer and Deutsche Bank, most of which are doing a thriving business in China.
Mr Scholz will also meet company representatives in Beijing.
That has some German observers questioning whether the country is becoming overly reliant on the Chinese market, just as it did with Russia for energy supplies.
In a statement, VW’s China head, Ralf Brandstatter, said Mr Scholz’s visit is important during “politically and economically challenging times like these”.
China is Germany’s most important trading partner, with 5,000 German companies active in the country and hundreds of thousands of German jobs tied to the Chinese market.
More than 14 million jobs in China depend on business with European companies, Mr Brandstatter said.
Mr Scholz also met with Premier Li Keqiang, who nominally has responsibility over China’s economy.
In an article for the German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Mr Scholz said he was travelling to Beijing “precisely because business as usual is not an option in this situation”.
“It is clear that if China changes, the way we deal with China must also change,” Mr Scholz said, adding that “we will reduce one-sided dependencies in the spirit of smart diversification”.
Mr Scholz also said he would address “difficult issues” such as the rights of ethnic minorities in Xinjiang.
His messages will face close scrutiny, particularly at home where some have criticised him for normalising China’s behaviour.
While Mr Scholz’s nearly year-old government has signalled a departure from predecessor Angela Merkel’s firmly trade-first approach, his trip follows domestic discord over a Chinese shipping company’s major investment in a container terminal in Germany’s crucial port of Hamburg.
With China still imposing tough Covid-19 restrictions, his delegation is moving in an anti-virus bubble, undergoing testing and will not stay in Beijing overnight.
At just 11 hours, it is the shortest trip ever to China by a German leader.
The aircrew who brought Mr Scholz to Beijing flew to South Korea to wait out the visit and avoid having to be quarantined.
German officials say the trip is intended to probe where China is going and what forms of co-operation are possible.
An official pointed to China’s “particular responsibility” as an ally of Russia to help end the war in Ukraine and press Moscow to tone down its nuclear rhetoric; to concerns over tensions in Taiwan and the broader region; to Germany’s desire for a “level playing field” in economic relations; and to Mr Scholz’s current status as this year’s chair of the G7.