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OP-ED: Why is everyone eyeing Berlin?

  • Published at 06:08 pm September 22nd, 2020
Photo: AFP

This decade could witness the coming together of a new Eurasian axle running from Beijing via Moscow to Berlin

Well, Berlin is a stunning city. Great Vietnamese food. Safe. Stuffed with history and museums. Eclectic. Historically left wing. Prone to burning Porsches in hard times a decade ago. But that’s not it.

It’s the capital of a Germany that was East Asia’s original model for industrialization, starting with Japan. Germany started “4.0 Industrie” in 2011 with a high tech vision for the 2020s and beyond. What we now know as the Fourth Industrial Revolution or the Internet of Things.

A few years later, Beijing adapted this in its own better known version -- Made in China 2025. That suits Berlin. Germany wants to be the “factory of the factories” of the world. Supplying the intelligent, connected capital goods. This follows its historic dominance of machine tools for industries, including that of China today. Germany is unusual in that it enjoys a trade surplus with China, selling expensive products.

Both Germany and China see Russia as their great source for natural gas and minerals. Moscow is keen to cement a relationship between all three. It sees Berlin as a source of technology and industrial investment to utilize its natural resources and its educated work force. Meanwhile, it sees China’s insatiable demand for resources as a source of capital to help pay for modernization.

Right now, the Trump administration is sanctioning companies involved in the direct pipeline, under the Baltic Sea, about to supply gas from Russia to Germany. Berlin is being arm-twisted to, instead, purchase expensive American LNG shipments. We shall see. That’s the economics.

Looking from Beijing, the other dimension is geopolitics. Precisely, that means dealing with the existential threat to its vulnerable sea lanes through which China’s vital fuel and commerce flow. Hence a big benefit of the Silk Road from Beijing to Berlin, with its pipelines, roads, and rail tracks is its defensive possibilities, deep inland.

Halford Mackinder, one of the giants of geopolitics, said: “Whoever controls Eastern Europe controls the heartland, who controls the Heartland controls the world.” He was referring to the entire eastern half of continental Europe, from Berlin to beyond Moscow up to the Ural Mountains. The Germanic and Russian bloc.

A rising Asia as well as a dominant North America might have changed the equation. Yet, this concept and contest over Eurasia has driven US geopolitical moves for most of the period from 1945 onwards. The cardinal rule: Never let Berlin and Moscow work as one. And heaven forbid that both link up with East Asia, primarily China.

In 1945, Germany was controlled by the US, USSR, France, and Britain. Stalin offered German reunification (promising to withdraw Soviet troops) in 1947 in return for Germany remaining neutral and to not join NATO. When rebuffed, he created the Berlin diversion (eulogized as the Berlin Airlift in 1948), and under this cover sending massive arms deliveries to Communist forces in China, and helped the decisive final push to Mao’s victory in 1949.

East Germany remained communist. China became communist. The question: “Who lost China?” haunted American strategists for decades. NATO was formed. As British General Hastings Ismay commented: “To keep the Russians out, the Americans in and Germany down. And looking westward, not east.”

German moves to its east have not always ended in inevitable war with Russia, as in 1914 and 1945. There was the Ostpolitik of Chancellor Willy Brandt seeing rapprochement with Moscow in the 1970s and Berlin’s multi-decade alliance with Moscow from the 1860s to 1890s.

Everyone is planning for the imminent Post-Merkel era.

Today, there is a Battle Royale for Berlin’s affections. Invited in, Germany is politely making positive sounds about joining in with “democratic states” in the Indo-Pacific. A transparent attempt to corral it into a US-led alliance for China containment/encirclement (take your pick).

Chancellor Angela Merkel has been very accommodating towards American sensibilities. But she has also visited China a dozen times, representing German economic interests. Her predecessor Gerhard Schroder vehemently opposed the Dick Cheney war for Iraq’s oil in 2003. He later moved on to become chief promoter of Gazprom gas supplying Germany. Which way will the next chancellor move?

Most German Big Business sees little profit in becoming geopolitical pawns and missing out on Russia and also China. They can smell the opportunities offered by the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). An 82 million-strong Germany cannot ignore the Great Prize: Machines and tools for 1.4 billion Chinese keen to become the equivalent of several Germanies, fuelled by Russia. Now, one gets the urgency of American moves to prevent this.

Farid Erkizia Bakht is a political analyst.

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