The Olympic Games and relations with the People's Republic of China

In:, Foreign Policy in Focus No. 375, July 24, 2008

By Gernot Erler, Minister of State

From August 8 to 24, 2008, the Olympic Games are taking place in Beijing. As a result, China has been the focus of increased international attention this year. This, in turn, led to more notice being paid to events in Tibet in March or the devastating earthquake in May. In Germany as in other countries, intensive debates have been conducted since then on how to deal with China in future.

China has developed at a quite breathtaking pace during the last twenty years. Some find this fascinating, while others find it frightening more than anything else. This development is marked by unprecedented economic growth which has enabled China to become firmly established among the world's leading economic powers and has resulted in growing prosperity for a large part of its population. Considerable progress has been made in the sphere of economic and social rights. This has been accompanied by China's increasing self-confidence on the international stage.

However, this rapid growth in such a short time has also led to China's problems - caused by the size of the country and its demand for raw materials to fuel its development - growing equally rapidly: environmental protection and climate change, social security, security of natural resources, food shortages and how to deal with international commitments, such as protection for intellectual property or compliance with the obligations of the World Trade Organization (WTO) as a whole. Nor should the development of Chinese society itself be forgotten: it cannot always keep up with the rapid economic growth, which inevitably leads to upheaval, both on the domestic front and in foreign policy.

For us, this raises the question: how should we deal with today's China, with a China which, on the one hand, is developing rapidly but, on the other, is still trying to adapt to the heavy responsibility it will have to shoulder due to its more prominent role in the international arena? China also has to get used to dealing and working with developed democratic societies, which are characterized by openness, an equal say for citizens, as well as respect for their rights. Although China has undoubtedly made some progress in this field, much remains to be done. With its successful policy of reform and opening up, China has opted for international cooperation, and the international community needs China as a responsible stakeholder.

Has China reached that stage yet? Certainly not in full, but we have an opportunity, indeed a responsibility and obligation, to support China along this path. This - the core aspect of Germany's and Europe's China policy - cannot be achieved through isolation or confrontation but, rather, only through cooperation and dialogue. We have been successfully conducting this dialogue with China for many years and in many fields. Examples of this are the strategic dialogue, the rule of law dialogue, the human rights dialogue or the environment dialogue. More than 30 different dialogue mechanisms have now been developed.

China has changed, as has its role in international relations, and we will continue to take this into consideration. This affects China's contribution towards the resolution of current international conflicts such as Darfur, the Middle East, Myanmar, North Korea or Iran. We are keen to work together with the Chinese Government to find solutions. It also affects major challenges such as climate change, energy security and poverty reduction. The United Nations, the G8 Heiligendamm Process, the regional fora in Asia and European-Asian cooperation within the framework of ASEM, as well as within the scope of the EU's cooperation with China, are key instruments of multilateral cooperation with China. We will continue to do everything we can to encourage China to show a strong international commitment.

China is prepared to conduct a dialogue with us and to cooperate on finding solutions to global issues. And we can sustain and extend this readiness by pursuing an intelligent China policy geared towards cooperation. In this way - and only in this way - will we succeed in involving China to an ever greater extent in the resolution of global challenges which, ultimately, face us all and which we can therefore only master together. And that is precisely the objective of our China policy. It is in line with the strategies on China of the European Union and of our transatlantic partners. Even in the case of such sensitive issues as Tibet it has been shown that a patient policy of dialogue can produce results. This was demonstrated by the resumption of the dialogue between the Chinese leadership and representatives of the Dalai Lama. The task now is to get results in the form of genuine cultural and religious autonomy for Tibetans within China.

Of course, in the run-up to the 2008 Olympic Games the human rights situation in China still gives cause for concern despite some improvements. However, we still believe that the Games can help open up China. For instance, some 30.000 media representatives will be in China and they will not only be reporting on sporting events. That should not be underestimated. China was astonishingly open following the earthquake in Sichuan Province. The Chinese government made a good impression with comprehensive reporting, the quick acceptance of foreign aid and, not least, with the reconstruction efforts, which have already begun. We are endeavouring in our talks with China to enhance this and transpose it to other spheres in order to bolster this approach.

The recent discussions about whether to boycott either the Olympic Games or the opening ceremony therefore did not make sense. An Olympic boycott is not the right way to respond to events in Tibet or to improve the human rights situation in China in the short term. We will continue along the path of cooperation and dialogue with China. We will step up trade, cooperate on political issues, address critical issues and differences of opinion and try in each individual case to move away from differences towards solutions of mutual benefit. This long-term and promising cooperation with China was affirmed during Federal Foreign Minister Steinmeier's recent trip to China in June 2008. It will be continued.


Dr. h.c. Gernot Erler is Minister of State in the German Foreign Office and member of the Social Democratic Party's parliamentary group in the Bundestag (MdB)