China, Germany, and a mutually profitable partnership

By Michal Meidan and Carsten Nickel

There are many reasons why China's economy has begun to cool, but the dramatic slowdown within the European Union, China's largest trade partner, is among the most important. Fears for Europe's growth and stability weigh heavily in Beijing, and China's risk-averse leaders are willing to invest in Europe's recovery.

But Beijing won't risk throwing good money after bad with substantial bailouts for risky peripherals like Spain, Italy or Greece. That would play badly inside China, where public perception that government is bailing out wealthy Europeans during a slowdown at home wouldn't play well. Greek haircuts earlier this year left Chinese investors with huge losses, and to invest in the European Financial Stability Facility (Europe's current bailout fund) is to form closer ties with meddlesome bureaucrats in Brussels.

Instead, China is increasing its direct investment in Germany, still Europe's economic engine, and, by extension, in Berlin's ability to manage crises and restore the continent's growth. That's good news for German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who sees the strategic importance of improving relations with the world's other leading manufacturing-dependent surplus economy. China has become Germany's third-largest export market behind France and the United States, and with demand among Germany's neighbors unlikely to increase anytime soon, German manufacturers will grow increasingly dependent on China and its markets.

Economic ties between China and Germany began to tighten following the onset of the financial crisis in 2008 as demand generated by the Chinese stimulus plan became an important source of Germany's recovery. Closer ties with German automakers and producers of renewable energy help Chinese firms develop new technologies and climb the value chain.

There is a downside for Germany. Expanded commercial ties will force Merkel's government to contend with domestic concerns that China's labor practices fall far short of acceptable standards and that German companies doing new business in China will have their intellectual property stolen. But Chinese purchases of German Bunds will help Merkel ease domestic fears that German support for Eurozone weaklings will sap the country's strength. That's why Merkel's once vocal criticism of China's human rights record has all but disappeared -- and why Berlin, unlike European institutions in Brussels, has yet to demand equal access to Chinese markets.

That's crucial for China. Beijing will continue to pay lip service to its ties with EU institutions, but growing ties between Beijing and Berlin will complicate Brussels' efforts to develop a common foreign and trade policy toward China, increasing Beijing's bargaining power with individual European partners.

Today, when China's leaders look toward Europe's core, they see a weakened France, a marginalized Britain, and a rising Germany. By betting on Berlin, China is hoping that Germany will use its increasingly decisive role in EU decision-making to provide China with market economy status, and the commercial advantages that come with it, and even to help lift Europe's arms embargo on Beijing. For its part, Germany is hoping ties with China can boost growth at a moment when it's badly needed.

For the moment, it's an increasingly profitable partnership.

Michal Meidan is an analyst in Eurasia Group's Asia practice. Carsten Nickel is an analyst in the firm's Europe practice. 

Sean Gallup/Getty Images