German opposition leaders and former government officials had met with the Dalai Lama before, but this was the first time an incumbent German chancellor had ever officially sat down with him. The enraged Chinese government has continued indiscriminate "retaliatory offensives" against Germany over the past three months. China has canceled two high-level bilateral talks, one on economics and trade, the other on human rights, and it bailed out of bilateral finance ministers' talks scheduled for early December in Beijing.
"Bilateral relations can be improved if Germany admits its mistake," Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao said pointedly on Nov. 28. But in an interview with the German press, Merkel countered Wen's threat by saying determinedly, "As the chancellor of Germany, I will decide on whom to meet and where. I can't give up my own principles for a trade relationship with China."
Merkel's principled policies have put into circulation a few newly-coined terms, such as the "Merkel cost" and "new Sino-German Cold War." Relations between Germany and China are frozen solid.
Interestingly, despite some worries that her efforts might have ill effects on the German economy, many experts have a positive view of Merkel's tenacious diplomacy. "In the long term it will prove beneficial to the German people and future German leaders," said Judy Dempsey, a political commentator.
Merkel is winning support for her diplomatic style, which stands in sharp contrast to the way other world leaders go to great efforts to avoid any conflict with China. Many experts attribute the strength of Merkel's diplomacy to the rock-solid political foundation she has laid -- it didn't come for free.
First of all, she restored Germany's traditional alliance with the U.S., the world's sole superpower. German relations under Merkel's predecessor Gerhard Schröder were quite rocky. Unlike Schröder, Merkel has placed top priority on her country's practical relations with the U.S. In her two years in office, Merkel has met with U.S. President George W. Bush seven times. In early November she was invited to Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas, a first for the German chancellor. Under Merkel's stewardship, U.S.-German relations have been at a peak.
In addition, Germany has been successful in finding an alternative to China in Asia. In late October, Merkel visited India, where she met with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. At that summit, she agreed with Singh on a strategic cooperative relationship between the two countries. An alarmed press in China and Hong Kong said Germany has clasped hands with India to get ahead of China.
Lastly, Germany has an economic and technological prowess with which it can outperform China. This year Germany will be overtaken by China and slide down to fourth among world nations in terms of GDP. But Germany has been awarded 15 times more patents and has spent 2.3 times more on R&D than China this year, according to OECD statistics. The Germans will also likely enjoy 14 times as much per capita income as the Chinese in 2008 as in 2007.
And what about South Korean-Chinese relations? Fifteen years after the establishment of ties with China, South Korea leads the world in investment in China and the number of students studying there, and it is concentrating more on China than ever before. But unlike the German case, South Korean politicians and diplomats are always trying to curry favor with China. In order to prepare for possible conflicts of interest, perhaps it's time we took a lesson from Merkel's successful diplomatic approach to China.
This column was contributed by Song Eui-dal, the Chosun Ilbo’s correspondent in Hong Kong.