Economics minister in china: quiet tones in loud times

Economics Minister Altmaier is fascinated by China’s industrial policy. He wants to learn from Beijing – and at the same time criticizes its industrial policy.

Already his second trip to China this year: Peter Altmaier Photo: dpa

Peter Altmaier did not let his good mood spoil. Once again, a government plane had broken down. Shortly before take-off from Tegel, his flight to Beijing had to be canceled, and he and the business delegation accompanying him had to change to a scheduled flight. The reason given was problems with the crew. Nevertheless, Altmaier was beaming when he appeared before the press at his destination.

In recent months, the German Minister of Economics from the CDU has repeatedly indicated that he has a certain fascination for China’s model: state capitalism with strong free-market elements. Even though he had recently explicitly emphasized at a press conference in Berlin that he did not want a change of system, but merely wanted to make Germany fit for "the challenge of China.

His call for a "strategic guideline for a German and European industrial policy" and the promotion of "champions" has recently drawn a lot of criticism. German SMEs, in particular, are afraid of being shortchanged if large companies are given targeted support. China’s leadership is doing just that: creating world market leaders. On his three-day trip to China – already the second this year – Altmaier currently wants to get a precise picture of the situation.

Officially, however, his government mandate is to address the downsides of China’s industrial policy: the discrimination of foreign companies, for example. During his first talks with the Chinese government, he then demanded a level playing field and a "kind of roadmap" with firm targets from Chinese Trade Minister Zhong Shan. "I neither put threats on the table nor played things down," the minister assured.

For Altmaier, China is a key issue. In his view, Germany’s future depends on its dealings with the People’s Republic. So far, the Chinese have wanted to learn from German industry. German companies have made a lot of money from this. But that is changing rapidly: The Middle Kingdom is becoming the biggest competitor in key sectors such as mechanical engineering and electromobility. Altmaier is calling for a pan-European response to this.

"Preventing escalation"

In Beijing on Thursday, Altmaier also met the Chinese chief negotiator in the stalled trade talks between the U.S. and China, Vice Premier Liu He. Altmaier expressed concern about the ever-worsening tone. "Germany has an interest in preventing an escalation," he said.

Peter Altmaier, minister

"I have neither put threats on the table nor played things down"

Germany and China are suffering a similar fate. Both countries are pilloried by U.S. President Donald Trump, who wants to punish them with additional tariffs because of high export surpluses. Next week, U.S. President Donald Trump and China’s leader Xi Jinping will meet on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Osaka, Japan. The meeting will determine whether the conflict can be resolved after all.

Altmaier plans to meet with Chinese telecom giant Huawei, which has also come under pressure from the U.S., in Shanghai on Friday. The world’s leading network supplier is hoping to get a piece of the action when it comes to expanding the new 5G mobile network in Germany. The U.S. government accuses Huawei of using spying technology and demands that other countries also abandon Huawei technology. However, the U.S. has never provided evidence for the espionage accusation.

Altmaier stressed in Beijing that no company would be discriminated against in the German mobile network, while at the same time stating that hardware and software from China would have to meet the highest security standards. However, he expressed confidence that "solutions in the interest of both sides" would be found.

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