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Germany And China: Reluctant Leaders In An Anxious World

Analysis: Neighbors in Europe worry that Germany is either acting too boldly, or not boldly enough. China's Asian neighbors wonder about the emerging global giant's long-term plans. Berlin and Beijing face a similar question: What to do

Who's laughing now? (RuckSackKruemel/SFTHQ)
Who's laughing now? (RuckSackKruemel/SFTHQ)
Sylvie Kauffmann

If Vladimir Putin or Victor Orban think they're being treated badly by the Western media, they should head over to Greece. At the height of their misfortune, the Greeks have found a perfect target at which to vent their collective rage, like a voodoo doll to sink needles in: Angela Merkel.

The German chancellor is regularly dragged through the press, occasionally depicted with guards in Nazi uniforms, and even with a Hitler-style moustache. Beyond the chancellor, the disgrace extends to all her compatriots, the so-called German occupiers and the historical wrong they haven't finished atoning for. The European Union is portrayed as the "Fourth Reich." Horst Reichenbach, head of the E.U. mission of 45 experts working to straighten out Greece's finances, rarely appears in the papers without a whip and an SS uniform. The austere European bureaucrat told the German magazine Der Spiegel that he had clearly underestimated the challenge that his German nationality would pose in Greece's current climate.

The Germans now find themselves in the unusual position of being respected, and even admired, in the rest of the world – nothing impresses the Chinese or the Singaporeans more than German efficiency – but still constrained to feign humility around their E.U. neighbors. This discomfort is all the more ironic with Germany having emerged from the euro crisis as the obvious leader of Europe. Not only because of the size of its population and of its GDP, but also because its economy is better managed than others; and also because the situation is so serious, the players so weakened, that they are desperately looking for a leader.

Increasingly, willingly or not, Germany is filling this role. When Merkel goes to Beijing to ask China to invest in Europe, she presents herself as the de facto leader of Europe. It was, after all, in Berlin and not in Paris or London that the Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski chose to give his final speech as the head of the Polish presidency of the European Union. Many Germans and Poles may have been surprised to hear Poland's leading diplomat proclaim: "I am less afraid of German power than of German passivity."

Europe to Asia

Such is the German dilemma: act and expose itself to caricatures, or not act and invite criticism? It incites a form of schizophrenia. The German press is divided: if Germany has to pay Europe's bills, why should it stay quiet? For Süddeutsche Zeitung, "Germany finds itself today where it had never wanted to be after 1945: the dominant power in the heart of Europe. But in the european crisis, we must not confuse firmness with arrogance, because our power is real, and it can scare others."

The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung adds: "Leadership is something you learn. It doesn't only consist of giving orders, but it also does not mean merely sacrificing itself and then handing out benefits."

There is, in this era of globalization, another emerging great power in spite of itself: China. As is the case with Germany, its economic weight has inevitably tipped its political and diplomatic balance faster than expected. China now finds itself encumbered with unforeseen responsibilities, and is solicited, pushed, pulled and criticized. Whether it's having to organize the evacuation of 35,000 Chinese workers in Libya, negotiating the liberation of compatriots taken hostage in Sudan or the Sinai. The Chinese want to take on space exploration? They must also ensure the protection of their energy supplies and raw materials on earth in order to feed their incredible growth.

But given the aircraft carriers they're building, their increasing military budget and the dictators they protect: their neighbors are afraid. Called on to behave as a responsible power on the international scene, China alarms as soon as it moves – because its intentions are not clear. What does Germany want? To play its card as an emerging power or as the leader of a united Europe? What does China want? Superpower status or a responsible role in a multi-polar world? Given the choices, Beijing and Berlin seem to be still hesitating about their answer.

Read more from Le Monde in French

Photo - RuckSackKruemel/SFTHQ

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