German minister visits Taiwan despite Berlin’s push for dialogue with Beijing

Taiwan will visit a German federal minister for the first time in 26 years next week, which has drawn attention to divisions in Berlin over how to manage its relationship with China amid geopolitical tensions between Beijing and the West.

Federal Education and Research Minister Bettina Stark-Watzinger is scheduled to arrive in Taipei on Tuesday for a two-day trip, according to three people briefed on the plans. During her trip, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock plans to visit Beijing in April or May, one of the people and another person familiar with the situation said.

The trip of Stark-Watzinger, who belongs to the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP), came as a sharp relief due to the China policy within the German government, where friction between the coalition parties – primarily the FDP and the Greens – made decision-making difficult on a number of issues.

Green Baerbock has traditionally taken a tougher stance on China than Chancellor Olaf Scholz, a Social Democrat. Tensions on the issue peaked on the eve of Scholz’s trip to Beijing last year, when Baerbock insisted that China was increasingly a systemic rival of the West.

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How Germany, which has one of Europe’s closest economic ties to China, balances its relationship with Beijing and its relationship with Taipei will resonate across the EU.

According to German diplomats, Baerbock’s planned trip to Beijing was part of an effort to put bilateral relations on a more stable track so that the countries could focus on issues of mutual interest, mainly economic.

“On the one hand, we send him [to Beijing] and we are pushing for a new round of bilateral government talks, which have not taken place since 2021 because of Covid, on the other hand, a minister is traveling to Taiwan for the first time – what message are we sending them?” said one of the German diplomats.

Bettina Stark-Watzinger

Bettina Stark-Watzinger © Sean Gallup/Getty Images

China considers Taiwan part of its territory and demands that third countries refrain from all contact with the island nation’s government.

Nevertheless, legislators and some government officials from Western countries often visit Taiwan. In August, Beijing staged unprecedented war games around Taiwan in response to a trip by then US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Taipei has seen a sharp increase in the number of foreign delegations over the past six months in response to Beijing’s bellicose response, with some officials specifically seeking to oppose China’s attempts to isolate Taiwan.

However, Germany has more strictly avoided political contact with Taiwan, especially as its economy is increasingly dependent on China. Chancellors and corporate delegations often traveled to the continent, but the alternating visits of the German and Taiwanese economic ministers to Berlin ceased after Günter Rexrodt of the FDP in 1997.

“It is of course a strong political signal that after 26 years a minister of the German government is visiting Taiwan again,” said Frank Schäffler, representative of the FDP, vice-chairman of the German parliament’s bilateral friendship group with Taiwan.

“The FDP has a long tradition of supporting Taiwan and has a lot of sympathy for Taiwan because it is a democracy.”

However, Schäffler added that Berlin should be careful about the signals it sends to Beijing. “The fact that the government wants and will have reasonable economic relations with China is indisputable. China is too important an economic power to doubt that, and that’s why we have to be careful.”

According to people familiar with the preparations for the Stark-Watzinger visit, Berlin rejected Taipei’s offer to meet Joseph Wu, the foreign minister of Taiwan, which hosts most visiting foreign government officials.

Under Berlin’s “one China” policy, such exchanges should be limited to the level of line ministers, below state offices relevant to sovereignty issues, which include the chancellor and the foreign, defense and interior ministers.

“We will not politicize this visit,” said a German diplomat. “Each of your meetings will focus strictly on the level and nature of the dialogue between ministers.”

Thorsten Benner, director of the Global Public Policy Institute, a Berlin-based think tank, said the visit should not seriously disrupt relations between Germany and China.

“If Beijing decides to go beyond the Stark-Watzinger visit, that’s their decision,” he said.

“Until [she] keeps a fairly low profile. . . I don’t think anyone in the government, including the chancellor, would blame anyone other than Beijing for the breakdown in relations because of his visit.”