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Ursula von der Leyen’s German lessons for China

Ursula von der Leyen in China
Looks so peaceful now. Source: DPA

Germany, as I’ve written before, has a really hard time figuring out how to deal with a rising, and increasingly menacing, China, alongside the more familiar problem of a cantankerous Russia. That’s why I was curious how Ursula von der Leyen, Germany’s defense minister, would comport herself during her visit to Beijing. Yesterday, she addressed a military academy there. Her job was to send a message without being explicit, lest she offend Chinese sensibilities. So how did that go?

The message was: Don’t start a war over the South China Sea. Those waters are international sea lanes. But China claims them as its own pond, and has been turning little islets into geographically fixed aircraft carriers. A confrontation with the US Navy appears likely one day.

Did the message arrive? Hard to say, because Ms. von der Leyen, true to her goal, didn’t mention the South China Sea at all. Instead, she spoke about German history, and how Germany in the late 19th and early 20th century became too large for its neighbors, too difficult to integrate into its continental power balance, and thus a cause for dreadful wars. I can’t imagine that her Chinese audience missed her intended meaning.

Ms. von der Leyen, like most of Germany’s policy establishment, also lamented Donald Trump’s apparent decision to withdraw from the INF Treaty, which I wrote about yesterday. That’s the 1987 agreement between America and Russia to ban land-based medium-range missiles (which NATO accuses Russia of cheating on).

But on this topic, too, China is the overlooked factor in Germany. It was not yet on the minds of Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev when they signed the INF Treaty during the bipolar Cold War. But it is on the mind of Donald Trump. Unbound by the treaty, China has been free to build its own missiles of all sorts, conventional and nuclear, the better to push America out of the Pacific one day. We need a new treaty. German diplomats should accept that and start helping to bring it about.

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I was just trying to remember my electron shells for oxygen, nitrogen, argon and all that. Like you, I’ve been a bit concerned of late that the US market for those industrial gases could get tight if Germany’s Linde and America’s Praxair finally complete their merger and become one. For example, did you know, as the Federal Trade Commission informs me, that Linde and Praxair together “would control two-fifths of the global helium supply”? You need that stuff to cool MRI machines.

Fine, so I’ve forgotten almost everything I ever knew, which was not much, about the Periodic Table. Nonetheless, it is quite a milestone that the above-mentioned FTC has now, like the European Commission, finally given the green light for Linde and Praxair to merge. That’s a victory for Wolfgang Reitzle, Linde’s boss, a former car-industry honcho who has made this deal his personal mission. To allay antitrust concerns, however, the two companies must sell a lot of their businesses before they merge. And that’s good news for another German company operating in America: Messer Group. It gets to buy the excess American assets. What a gas. 

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Are you allowed to be a politician in a party that claims to be concerned about poverty and also wear an expensive Rolex watch? What an utterly ridiculous question. But that’s the question the baying packs of trolls on Twitter and Facebook were shouting at Sawsan Chebli all weekend. She is a Social Democrat, and an up-and-coming politician in the regional government of Berlin. She also has an interesting background: born in Germany as a stateless daughter of Palestinian refugees. She didn’t always have it easy, and yet she made it.

Well, somebody posted an old photo of her wearing a Rolex watch. And voilà, she got a full-bore internet shitstorm. (Germans, incidentally, print and use the English word “shitstorm” in polite society without flinching.) Finally, Chebli let them have it: “Which of you haters has lived in two rooms with 12 siblings, slept and eaten on the floor, and chopped wood on the weekend because coal was too expensive? … Nobody has to explain to me what poverty is. #Rolex” Then she deleted her Facebook account (as I did long ago). Good for you, Sawsan. Chin up and at it.

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