China has already taken a significant step into Germany. In the Rheinhausen district of Duisburg, trains are now rolling across the site where steelworkers once fought unsuccessfully to save their mill in 1987 while shipyard cranes stack up containers on the banks of the Rhine River. This is the precise point where the New Silk Road, China’s massive infrastructure project, comes to an end.
The site in Duisburg is known as Logport I and it is one of the largest container ports in Europe. Twenty-five trains arrive each week at Terminal DIT, also known as the China Terminal, after having traveled the more than 10,000 kilometers from Chongqing across Kazakhstan, Russia, Belarus and Poland.
Four years ago, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited the inland port. The engine of a train that arrived from China that day was decorated with red paper dragons for the occasion and Erich Staake, CEO of the Duisburg port, was also on hand.
Staake, who, like the Chinese president, was born in 1953, sees the rail connection as a boon both for the port and for the entire region, which badly needs it. “We want to grow,” he says. “China and the New Silk Road offer us great potential.” One way of seeing it is that the trade route brings China and Germany that much closer together.
There is, though, another way of seeing it: Namely that the multibillion-dollar project provides the Chinese with a kind of bridgehead in Europe from which they are pushing their expansion across the Continent and broadening their economic influence.
So which is it? An opportunity or a threat?
It isn’t easy to find an answer to that question — and that itself is telling. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s visit to China this week will have a different flavor to it than her previous 10 visits to the country. The relationship between the two countries has changed in the interim and is no longer as balanced as it once was.
Until recently, the relationship had seemed almost symbiotic and the roles were clear: Germany sold high-end machinery and vehicles in China, including more than 5 million automobiles in 2017 alone. In return, China exported furniture, refrigerators and electronic devices to Germany at unbeatably low prices. But now, China has reached adulthood much more quickly than expected.
Not all that long ago, China was a developing economy, seen by industrialized countries in the West as a gigantic market where they could sell their goods. Then, it became the world’s factory, a place with inexhaustible resources. Now, however, it has matured into a powerful competitor capable of leaving Germany in its dust. Chinese companies are developing intelligent machinery and production facilities; they are building cars, many of them with electric motors; and they’re making inroads into sectors that used to be Germany’s private domain. China has figured out how to copy Germany’s successful model and is now becoming a danger to the original.
Mikko Huotari was one of the first to identify this development several years ago. Huotari is a scholar at the Mercator Institute for China Studies (merics), a think tank in Berlin. The old logic which held that “China needs us” is no longer true. In fact, he says, the situation has flipped: Germany is increasingly reliant on China as the country increasingly becomes a driver of global innovation. “The entire mechanics of the system have changed.”
Just how confident, or perhaps even aggressive, the Chinese have become can be seen when they buy companies in Germany. They used to target second-tier firms, but in recent years, the focus has increasingly shifted to key industrial players. “Germany is home to around 1,000 mid-sized companies that are global leaders in their sectors. The Chinese want access to them,” says Kai Lucks, head of the Federal Association of Mergers & Acquisitions in Germany.
Recently, Chinese buyers have even shown an appetite for companies listed on the DAX, Germany’s blue-chip stock index. In February, billionaire Li Shufu quietly acquired a 10 percent stake in Daimler. Dieter Zetsche, the company’s chairman of the board, believes that an additional large Chinese investor may also acquire a stake in the company: the state-owned firm BAIC, Daimler’s Chinese partner. Politicians and executives are beginning to wonder what large company might be targeted by Chinese investors next.
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