German Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel has an interesting several days ahead of him.
Last week, Germany withdrew its support for the sale of semiconductor firm Aixtron to a Chinese bidder. The decision apparently came after U.S. intelligence officials warned Germany that the sale would give China technology that it could use for military purposes; so, too, did it follow months of increasingly protectionist chatter by Gabriel, who has stressed that Europe’s high-tech industry “should not just be sold off.” Beijing has made clear that it has “great concern” over this turn of events, according to Deutsche Welle.
It’s not difficult to see why: Chinese firms, often state-owned, were happily buying and investing in Europe until the continent’s economic powerhouse pumped the proverbial breaks. Per Bloomberg, Chinese companies have announced bids or bought German companies to the tune of $12 billion this year.
That’s part and parcel of China’s so-called “New Silk Road,” which envisions links between China, Central Asia, the Indian Ocean, and Europe. Gaining access to markets there is important for Beijing: China and France announced a fund for joint overseas investment; China-U.K. trade is booming; and China initiated the 16+1 framework with Central and Eastern European countries for diplomatic and, ahem, economic relations.
Some Europeans have welcomed Chinese money with open arms. The U.K., for example, eagerly courted Chinese investment in recent years, as France is doing now. And for some countries and sectors — such as busy container ports like Rotterdam in the Netherlands and Greece’s Piraeus — Chinese largesse is helpful indeed. But fears are starting to grow in Europe that Chinese money has geopolitical strings attached.
And with global trade slowing to a degree seldom if ever seen since World War II, and populism growing, many in Germany including Gabriel want to push back against what they see as a strategic swoop by China to gobble up key companies in high-tech sectors. Gabriel has taken issue with Beijing’s opposition to opening up its own market to foreign investment. EU Digital Economy Commissioner Günther Oettinger, who, unlike Gabriel, is a member of Angela Merkel’s political party, has also criticized China’s buying spree. Oettinger went so far as to refer to Chinese people as “slit eyes” and “sly dogs” in a speech to business leaders in Hamburg. Oettinger later clarified that he meant Chinese are clever, and thus Europe should not be complacent in its dealings with China and the technological and digital sectors.
It remains to be seen if Oettinger’s clarification will be enough to open doors for Gabriel, who embarks Tuesday on a five-day trip to China to see German business leaders and Chinese government officials.
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