Taiwan will host its first visit by a German federal minister in 26 years next week, a trip that has highlighted divisions in Berlin over the handling of its relationship with China as geopolitical tensions between Beijing and the west rise.
Bettina Stark-Watzinger, federal minister of education and research, is scheduled to arrive in Taipei on Tuesday for a two-day trip, according to three people briefed on the plans. Her trip comes as Germany’s foreign minister Annalena Baerbock is planning to visit Beijing in April or May, one of the people and one other person familiar with the situation said.
The trip by Stark-Watzinger, of the liberal Free Democratic party (FDP), has thrown in stark relief discord over China policy within the German government, where frictions between the coalition parties — primarily the FDP and Greens — have hampered decision-making on a range of issues.
Baerbock, a Green, has traditionally taken a harder line on China than Chancellor Olaf Scholz, a Social Democrat. Tensions over the issue peaked on the eve of Scholz’s trip to Beijing last year when Baerbock insisted that China was increasingly a systemic rival to the west.
How Germany, which has one of Europe’s closest economic ties to China, balances its relationship with Beijing and engagement with Taipei will resonate across the EU.
Baerbock’s planned trip to Beijing was part of an effort to put bilateral relations on a more stable track to allow the countries to focus on major, mostly economic, issues of mutual interest, German diplomats said.
“On the one hand, we are sending her [to Beijing] and pushing for a new round of bilateral government consultations which have not taken place since 2021 due to Covid, and on the other hand, a minister travels to Taiwan first — what kind of message are we sending to them?” said one German diplomat.
China claims Taiwan as part of its territory and demands that third countries refrain from any contact with the island nation’s government.
Lawmakers and some government officials from western countries nonetheless frequently visit Taiwan. In August, Beijing staged unprecedented war games around Taiwan in response to a trip by Nancy Pelosi, then Speaker of the US House of Representatives.
Taipei has seen a sharp increase in foreign delegations over the past six months in a backlash to Beijing’s belligerent response, with some officials explicitly seeking to counter China’s attempts to isolate Taiwan.
But Germany has more strictly avoided political contact with Taiwan, especially as its economy has grown increasingly dependent on China. Chancellors and large corporate delegations have made frequent trips to the mainland, but Berlin ceased alternating visits by the German and Taiwanese economy ministers after one by Günter Rexrodt, of the FDP, in 1997.
“It is of course a strong political signal that after 26 years a German government minister visits Taiwan again,” said Frank Schäffler, an FDP lawmaker and deputy chair of the German parliament’s bilateral friendship group with Taiwan.
“The FDP has a long tradition regarding support for Taiwan, and there is a lot of sympathy for Taiwan because it is a democracy.”
But Schäffler added that Berlin needed to be careful about its signalling to Beijing. “The fact that the government wants and will have reasonable economic relations with China is undisputed. China is far too important an economic power to have any doubts over that, and that is why we have to be considerate.”
According to people familiar with the preparations for Stark-Watzinger’s visit, Berlin pushed back against Taipei’s proposal that she meet Joseph Wu, Taiwan’s foreign minister, who receives most visiting foreign government officials.
Under Berlin’s “one China” policy, such exchanges are to be confined to the level of specialised ministers, below state offices relevant to issues of sovereignty, which include the chancellor and foreign, defence and interior ministers.
“We will not have this visit politicised,” said a German diplomat. “All her meetings will be strictly focused on the level and nature of specialised ministers’ dialogue.”
Thorsten Benner, director of the Global Public Policy Institute, a Berlin think-tank, said the visit should not severely disrupt Germany’s relations with China.
“If Beijing chooses to go ballistic over Stark-Watzinger’s visit that’s their choice,” he said.
“As long as [she] is keeping a fairly low profile . . . I don’t think anyone in the government including the chancellor would hold anyone other than Beijing responsible for the deterioration of the relationship over her visit.”