Merkel Seeks China’s Backing on Iran, Gets Hints of Help on Debt Crisis

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Mark Ralston / AFP / Getty Images

German Chancellor Angela Merkel tours Nanluo Guxiang which is a traditional Chinese Hutong (courtyard houses) area in Beijing on Feb. 2, 2012.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s fifth official visit to China, a three-day trip that started Thursday, saw her seeking help from the emerging economic superpower on the European debt crisis, reining in Iran’s nuclear ambitions and curtailing the ongoing violence in Syria. So far China has signaled a willingness to help on one of those issues. On Thursday, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao said China was considering “involving itself more deeply” in efforts to support the euro, state media reported. Europe is China’s largest trade partner, and China, with $3.2 trillion in foreign reserves, has said it would be willing to help in bailout efforts but says it expects Europe to take the lead and wants to see fiscal reforms.

China “supports efforts to maintain the stability of the euro and the euro zone,” Wen said, and asked that Europe should seek more ways to win support from the international community. He said that China was considering further involvement in the existing bailout fund, the European Financial Stability Facility, or through its successor, the European Stability Mechanism, though he didn’t give details.

Shortly after her arrival Thursday in Beijing, Merkel spoke at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a government supported research institution, where she gave a strong endorsement of the euro. “As our common currency, the euro has made Europe stronger, and Germany itself has benefited from the currency,” she said, according to the state-run China Daily. “The European Union, especially those states that have adopted the euro, has made considerable progress in the last two years.” While not publicly asking for help with bailout funds, she sought to assure China that steps taken to ease the debt crisis by enforcing fiscal discipline would succeed. It’s a theme that the Chinese can expect to hear more about as Merkel is but the first of several European leaders set to visit in February for talks dominated by the economic crisis.

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Merkel also pushed for Chinese help with Iran and Syria, as the German Chancellor wants them to “make Iran understand that the world should not have another nuclear power.” Last month the European Union enacted an oil embargo on Iran in an effort to pressure it to curtail its nuclear pursuit. The U.S. has similarly passed legislation that would punish firms that do business with Iran’s central bank—its main processor of oil revenues—by excluding them from the U.S. financial system. China, which is the leading importer of Iranian oil, has opposed the sanctions. Some observers say Chinese oil traders are even trying to leverage the sanctions to win better deals from Iran.

Speaking at a press conference with Merkel on Thursday, Wen reiterated China’s opposition to sanctions, which he said wouldn’t solve the fundamental dispute. He said that China rejected efforts by Iran or any other state in the Middle East to develop nuclear weapons, but said the issue should be resolved through dialogue, according to the state-run Xinhua news service.

Merkel also touched on human rights during her talk at CASS and the joint press conference with Wen, in which she raised Germany’s ongoing formal dialogue with China over the development of its legal system and also emphasized the need for free expression. “We are talking about how our societies can develop further, under very different conditions and with very different histories, in the direction of economic freedom, social security and environmental necessity,” she said. “We live together in a globalized world and know that we therefore have a mutual responsibility for each other.”

The Global Times, a tabloid run by the Communist Party-owned People’s Daily, argued in an editorial Friday in its English and Chinese editions that Merkel’s latest visit showed China’s growing strength had pressured European leaders to moderate their criticism on rights issues:

When she first took office as Chancellor in 2005, Merkel had one of the staunchest positions on human rights and Tibet, reversing the previously pragmatic policy toward China by meeting with the Dalai Lama and adopting a hard-line China policy. Now it seems that Merkel is back to the traditional pragmatic approach.

This policy adjustment has been forced upon Germany by China’s economic influence. As German Chancellor, Merkel is responsible for Germany’s realistic interests. The diplomacy of values toward China has become a political show that is too expensive to stage.

During her 2007 trip, Merkel spoke with outspoken journalists including Li Datong, an editor who had been dismissed for aggressive essays he published in a special section of the China Youth Daily. Later that year in Berlin she met with the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader reviled by the Chinese government.

On this visit to China, a lawyer invited to dine with Merkel, the rights advocate Mo Shaoping, said he was blocked by authorities from attending, Reuters reported. Another invitee, editor Wu Si of the reformist magazine Yanhuang Chunqiu, was able to attend, Mo told the news service.

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