Some sections of German society still have a certain “naivety” towards China, the country’s foreign intelligence chief said on Monday, amid a growing debate over the wisdom of economic ties to Beijing.
There is “certainly still room for improvement” when it comes to dealing with contacts from Chinese authorities, said the head of the BND foreign intelligence agency, Bruno Kahl.
Germany must be vigilant over the “migration of knowledge” towards China as it looks to become a technological world leader by 2049, Kahl told an annual parliamentary hearing of Germany’s secret services chiefs.
“I believe that a great change in awareness has already set in. But of course there is also a lot of trust and naivety in the scientific field that is not appropriate,” he said.
China is a key trading partner for Germany, especially for its flagship automotive industry.
But Berlin’s relationship with Beijing has been soured in recent years by China’s strict zero-Covid policy, the escalation of tensions over Taiwan and concern over human rights issues in the Muslim-dominated Xinjiang region.
The breakdown of Germany’s relationship with Russia over the war in Ukraine has also led to some soul-searching in Berlin over its economic ties to China.
However, despite the growing debate, major German companies are pushing ahead with huge investments in China.
Volkswagen last week said it was investing 2.4 billion euros ($2.3 billion dollars) in a joint venture with China’s Horizon Robotics focused on autonomous driving.
Chinese shipping giant Cosco is also due to take a 35 percent stake in a container terminal in Hamburg, though the plans are on ice due to reservations in the federal government.
Kahl said he viewed the participation of Chinese companies in key German infrastructure “very critically”.
“Of course a port, for example, is the type of critical infrastructure that you have to examine very carefully before you enter into a commitment,” he said.
Germany “must be prepared for the fact that… economic levers could be used to enforce Chinese ideas”, Kahl warned.
“Should there be differences in the political views of Germany on the one side and China on the other, then these means will also be used.”
Thomas Haldenwang, the head of Germany’s domestic intelligence agency, also warned of the dangers of Chinese companies becoming involved in key infrastructure.
“We must not allow a situation in which the Chinese state can influence political events in Germany,” he said.