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China, an unprecedented fault line for employers in Germany

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It was February 21, three days before the Russian attack on Ukraine. The world had an appointment with Martin Brudermüller, boss of the German chemical giant BASF, in Ludwigshafen (Rhineland-Palatinate), the group’s headquarters, in the heart of the largest chemical complex in Europe. During the interview, Russia was discussed, but especially China, where BASF must invest 10 billion euros by 2030, in Zhanjiang, in the province of Guangdong (southeast), for build a new production site there.

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Isn’t it risky, we asked then, to invest such a sum in a country with asserted geopolitical ambitions, which multiplies the signs of hostility vis-à-vis the West? Mr. Brudermüller replied with the implacable authority of figures: “In 2030, China will represent 50% of the world chemical market. If you want to be a global chemical giant, you can’t say half the market isn’t for you. »

Nine months later, while the war in Ukraine and Chinese threats to Taiwan have led to a sharp increase in geopolitical risk, the same question arises, even more acutely, for the entire German economy. . Witness the visit of German Chancellor Olaf Scholz to Beijing, scheduled for Friday, November 4, as politically controversial as it is logistically delicate.

Due to health restrictions, the official plane was to leave the same evening, and only twelve representatives of the economic world were accredited, out of a hundred applications, a far cry from the large delegations of the Merkel era. The boss of BASF will be on the trip, as will Oliver Blume, the new leader of Volkswagen (VW), Roland Busch, of Siemens, Christian Sewing, of Deutsche Bank, the leaders of BMW, Bayer, Adidas and Merck , or a representative of the BioNTech laboratory.

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Two clearly visible fronts

More surprising is the list of those who declined the invitation: the manufacturers Mercedes and Daimler Truck, the equipment manufacturers Bosch, Continental and Schaeffler, and even the Bundesverband der Deutschen Industrie (BDI), the influential federation of industrialists. If the real reasons for these absences are not known, there is no better illustration of the dilemma of German companies vis-à-vis China, a long-time favorite market for “made in Germany” because of its dynamic growth and its strong profitability.

Read also: Article reserved for our subscribers German industry caught up in geopolitics

China has been Germany’s largest trading partner for six years. In 2021, it was its first supplier, and its second export market, far behind the United States. Across the Rhine, a million jobs depend directly on exports to Beijing. But Covid-19 and the war in Ukraine have opened a new era within German capitalism. Two clearly visible fronts have formed. On the one hand, the large groups, often of systemic importance for Germany, who believe that a world-class industrialist cannot cut himself off from China.

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