On more than one occasion in recent years, a German politician has indicated that Germany must find its way between the United States, China, and Russia, suggesting a kind of soft equivalence between the three. But developing policies that reflect that position is going to be increasingly difficult to do.
The U.S. Congress, for instance, has just passed (and the President will likely sign into law) the National Defense Authorization Act of 2020. Included in the act is a measure (Sec. 7501, “Protecting Europe’s Energy Security Act of 2019”) that would allow the U.S. Government to sanction companies and their executives helping to construct Nord Stream II—the pipeline that would move natural gas from Russia directly to Germany under the Baltic Sea. Both Congress and the Trump Administration view the pipeline as a gift to Putin. Once completed, it would increase revenues that support Russian misbehavior, mitigate the current sanctions placed on Russia for its Ukraine invasion, and undercut a source of revenue for Kiev as Russian gas moves from the overland system through Ukraine to the Nord Stream system. It’s a concern shared not only by the United States but also by Ukraine’s neighbors and the European Union, which in recent years has wanted to decrease, not increase, European dependence on Russian energy supplies.
Berlin’s argument has been that, as Russia’s primary gas customer and its primary distributor to the rest of Europe, it will have the leverage to ensure that Russia doesn’t use its control over gas supplies to its strategic advantage. However, since 1) a steady supply of natural gas is a necessity to meet Europe’s energy requirements, 2) completion of Nord Stream II will give the Kremlin control over some three-quarters of gas imports to Europe, and 3) German coffers will be directly tied to that steady supply, it is difficult to see how the advantage doesn’t lie with Moscow. Regardless, given President Trump’s own predilection to pick on Germany for its underwhelming level of defense spending, it is doubtful that he will pass up the chance to use the new sanction measure as a way of digging at Chancellor Merkel and the coalition government she leads.
And while the push to make a choice on energy ties with Russia is coming from Washington, a new push to challenge Berlin’s relations with China is coming from within not only the German parliament itself but also Merkel’s own ruling coalition. Members of the Bundestag, led by Norbert Röttgen, Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, have drafted a bill that for all intents and purposes would exclude the Chinese telecom equipment company Huawei from Germany’s planned 5G network. In contrast with German intelligence’s assessment that “there may be areas where [Huawei’s] participation doesn’t have to be excluded,” the proposed measure would exclude the company’s equipment from “core” as well as “peripheral” areas of the network. Not unreasonably, Röttgen and his allies in the parliament believe Merkel’s “cutting-the-baby-in-half” solution is no solution at all when it comes to German communication security, now or in the future.
The government’s argument is that excluding Huawei might delay Germany’s ability to put in place a 5G network by a year or two and may cost more, since the alternative European providers are not subsidized as Huawei is by its government. But putting aside whether such a delay really matters all that much, or whether the added cost of depending on a more reliable technology supplier is really a cost at all, the more likely reason for Merkel not wanting to exclude Huawei altogether is the possibility of Chinese retaliation against German exports to China. China is Germany’s third-largest export market. With German economic performance being less than stellar, it seems doubtful that the Chancellor and her government would want to anger Beijing. Indeed, China’s Ambassador to Germany, showing none of the subtlety that Chinese diplomats are supposedly noted for, said there would be “consequences” if Huawei were excluded from the German telecom market and, more pointedly, that “the Chinese government will not stand idly by.” The Ambassador then offered a joke that German car manufacturers, deeply invested in the Chinese domestic market, aren’t likely to find all that funny: Perhaps the Chinese government, he said, would conclude that “German cars are not safe.”
As the issues raised by Nord Stream II and Huawei indicate, it’s not easy keeping an equipoise between the United States, China, and Russia. Choices have to be made. And one suspects that the choices will not get any easier with Chinese ambitions hardly cooling, with Putin’s sense that Europe’s resolve to keep up sanctions for Ukraine is waning, and with President Trump’s relationship with Berlin feeling as toxic as ever. To be clear, Germans don’t simply equate the United States with China and Russia, but the skepticism they have toward the latter two is leavened by the pessimism they feel toward the former. Nevertheless, Transatlantic ties are fraying not just because of Trump, but because Berlin has not fully accepted the fact that a leadership role in Europe requires putting security and strategic interests over and above narrow national interests. Attempting to find some middle ground is a circle not readily squared.