Blocked sister city plan reveals new German caution about China (2023)


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The German port of Kiel and the Chinese port of Qingdao have much in common. Unfortunately, there are submarines among them.

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Blocked sister city plan reveals new German caution about China (1)

ByChristopher F. Schuetze

Reportage from Berlin and Kiel, Germany

Read Simplified ChineseRead the traditional Chinese version

City officials in the northern German port of Kiel were flattered this year when the Chinese port of Qingdao - about 40 times its size - proposed a sister city partnership. They hastened to accept the offer.

The history of cooperation between the two cities dates back to the times when the Germans helped their Chinese counterparts in the construction of a sailing center for the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. Both have large commercial harbours, extensive promenades and public beaches. It seemed like a good match.

In fact, almost too good for security experts who have noticed other, less innocent similarities.

Kiel, inhabited by around 250,000 people, hosts a large part of the German Baltic Fleet, the German equivalent of the Navy SEALs, military research centers and large shipyards producing, among other things, six brand new, state-of-the-art submarines.

A city of more than nine million people, Qingdao is home to China's North Sea Fleet, a naval research academy and China's main submarine school that specializes in submarine hunting.

“It is clear that Kiel could be very interesting as a naval port,” said Göran Swistek, a retired German naval commander and security expert. "In Kiel you can observe German or allied units up close."

Subsequent outrage from security experts and federal politicians thwarted Kiel's plans. Although the City Council initially approved the partnership in March, it will vote on Thursday whether to form a panel to reassess the partnership or even stop it altogether.


Dawn in Kiel speaks of an emerging shift in the German outlook on China, especially since Russia's invasion of Ukraine - and not just because of Moscow's support from Beijing.

Once seen primarily as a lucrative export market by Germany, China is now recognized as an emerging global power. Germany, painfully weaned from cheap Russian gas over the past year, fears that it will remain in a similar economic situation.

China would have a huge impact on Germany's economy if hostilities broke out between East and West over Taiwan. In 2021, Germany exported over €100 billion worth of goods to China, making the country the second largest market for German goods, after the United States. When it comes to cars - one of the main drivers of German industry - China is the largest market.

Former Chancellor Angela Merkel often traveled to China with huge trade delegations. But her successor, Olaf Scholz, was widely criticized for doing the same last year, and an attempt by a Chinese entity to buy a container port in Hamburg led toa months-long dispute in his coalition government.

Many are now trying to recalibrate the two countries' ties, a delicate and sometimes tense process that was evident during Tuesday's visit to Berlin by Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang.

During the meeting, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbocktold Mr. Qin that China could do more to help end the war in Ukraine. Last month, when she visited Beijing, she warned China of a military escalation in Taiwan.

"China, as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, can play a significant role in ending the war if it chooses to do so," she said on Tuesday, referring to Ukraine.


However, the vehemence of the opposition to the partnership with Qingdao surprised the chairman of the Kiel City Council, Hans-Werner Tovar, who had overseen the start of the partnership with two other cities. After all, he claims that Qingdao and Kiel already have friendly relations, and both cities have sent delegations in the past.

"Those who claim that this movement is somehow of great importance and that the world will collapse because of it - even if the exchange has been going on all along, only unofficially - know nothing about municipal politics, much less about foreign policy in municipalities politics,” said Mr. Tovarsid.

Town twinning, which generally consists of a formal agreement allowing for regular visits by trade delegations, educational exchanges, local research collaborations and more, played an integral role in unifying Europe after World War II. Many German cities are paired with homologues in France and England.

A particularly sociable city, Kiel has 13 such partnerships, with places as disparate as San Francisco and Moshi District in Tanzania. Its partnerships with two Russian cities have been put on hold since Russia invaded Ukraine.

Mr. Tovar, who is 74 and will retire early next month, compares the partnership with Qingdao to partnerships with Gdynia in Poland and Stralsund in the former East Germany, which developed in the late 1980s before the fall of communism.

"Urban foreign policy is primarily characterized by trying to break down barriers or not allowing them to arise in the mind," he said, adding, "If the Chinese want to spy, they definitely don't need a partnership with the city to do it."


However, some security experts disagreed. "Access to sensitive facilities often depends on local contacts," said Sarah Kirchberger, security expert atInstitute for Security Policy at the University of Kieland helped raise the alarm. "Not everything can be learned through cyberespionage."

Another expert, Sandra Heep, who heads the China Center at the City University of Applied Sciences in Bremen, generally supports the kind of exchange that comes with city twinning, but warns that strict protective barriers are required for China.

"We need more dialogue and more exchanges with China," she said. "But it is absolutely essential to ensure that this does not lead to a situation where sensitive information, particularly information that could be useful to the Chinese military, flows into China, especially given the growing risk of a Chinese attack on Taiwan."

Kiel is now a particularly ripe target, warn Dr Kirchberger and others, as Chancellor Scholz's promise to inject €100 billion into Germany's defense budget is stirring up a storm in the ports.

With its eye on Russia just beyond the horizon of the Baltic Sea, ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems, one of Germany's largest submarine builders, is running a joint venture with Norway to build six new submarines.

Behind closed doors, managers at the shipbuilding company, which employs 3,500 people in Kiel, are admitting to being concerned, according to two people with direct knowledge of the situation.


Professor Heep said that if the German impetus for partnership comes at the city level, it is likely to be controlled or at least approved by a much higher level on the Chinese side. "The Chinese side always acts more strategically than the German side."

The friendship between the two cities began almost two decades ago, when the Qingdao company turned to Kiel for help in building a sailing center for the Olympic Games. Kiel had experience in organizing sailing events during the two Summer Olympic Games in Germany in 1936 and 1972.

"They told us, 'We don't have a boat and nobody can sail - oh, and we've never organized a regatta,'" said Uwe Wanger, who helps coordinate Kiel's municipal youth sailing program. initial exchanges with representatives in Qingdao.

Kiel helped Qingdao create a sailing scene and an annual "sailing week" during which 600 local children learn to sail on Optimist dinghies. "Kiel can be proud that we helped them get started," said Wanger.

Others are less in love with friendship. One of them is Antonia Grage, 30, a Conservative politician running for City Council in the upcoming elections.

When she heard about the plan, she went to the press and eventually persuaded her party members to vote against the bill, which did not prevent it from being passed.

Ms Grage disagreed with the twinning because she believed "totalitarian government" should not be rewarded with a town twinning.

"When you look at our other partners," she said, "Qingdao just doesn't fit the picture."


Christopher F. Schuetze covers German news, society and the occasional arts from the Berlin office. Before moving to Germany, he lived in the Netherlands, where he dealt with everything from tulips to rising sea levels. @CF protection

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