Under pressure from the Chancellery, the traffic light coalition in the dispute over a 35 percent stake in the Chinese state-owned company Cosco agreed at the cabinet meeting on Wednesday that the deal would not be prohibited, but that the companies would have to abide by the conditions. Accordingly, Cosco may only acquire a stake of less than 25 percent in the Hamburger Container Terminal Tollerort.
According to a statement from the Federal Ministry of Economics, further acquisitions above this threshold are prohibited. The reason for the partial ban is that there is a risk to public order and safety, it says.
It is still unclear whether Cosco will agree to the deal on the new terms. The state-owned company initially reacted cautiously to the restrictions imposed by the federal government.
The decision and the conditions have not yet been received and must be examined, according to a statement published on Wednesday and reported by the Reuters news agency. “There is no guarantee that the transaction will take place or when it can take place,” investors were warned. Cosco recalled that with the logistics group HHLA the purchase of 35 percent and not just 24.9 percent had actually been agreed.
The FDP and the Greens had spoken out against the participation of the Chinese. Steffen Saebisch, State Secretary in the Federal Ministry of Finance, wrote a letter to the head of the Federal Chancellery, Wolfgang Schmidt (SPD), on Tuesday. In it he describes Cosco’s participation in the port as a “fatal economic and geopolitical signal”. In a memorandum, the Federal Foreign Office expressed serious concerns about the cabinet’s decision on China’s entry. This would result in “significant risks”. Both the letter and the note are available to the Handelsblatt.
Warning from China experts: No solution to the political problem
China experts warned on Wednesday of the consequences of the decision. “A technical compromise is not a solution to the underlying political problem,” said Janka Oertel, director of the Asia program at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
As with the 5G question, Berlin is trying to hide behind supposedly clever legal solutions and postpone the strategic question of dealing with China. “Unfortunately, that’s no longer enough,” said Oertel.
Federal cabinet approves Cosco participation in Hamburg port logistics
Agatha Kratz, China expert at the Rhodium Group, criticized the signal sent to the Chinese government that the partial approval of the purchase was given. Such a deal would be impossible for a German company to realize in China, explained Kratz. “This shows the willingness of the German leadership to accept the ongoing lack of reciprocity in economic relations.”
In an open letter to Chancellor Olaf Scholz (SPD), dozens of sinologists warned of the consequences of the deal. The takeover would give the Chinese Communist Party “significant influence over the Tollerort terminal,” it said.
Tim Rühlig from the German Society for Foreign Relations is critical of the access to the data of the port terminal, which Cosco probably receives through the deal. “In ports, data is generated that provides extensive information about international trade in goods,” said Rühlig.
Access to such data would bring significant competitive advantages. “In addition, it does not seem unreasonable that at the moment of an economic war, extensive knowledge of the opponent’s trade flows and supply chain dependencies is useful,” he warned.
Others are less critical of getting started. Jürgen Matthes from the institute of the German economy (IW), which is close to employers, considers the federal government’s compromise to be in order.
Large dependencies of German companies on China
But the feud throws a “problematic light on the great dependencies of individual German companies on China”. Clemens Fuest, President of the Ifo Institute, said ad hoc decisions for or against individual Chinese investments would bring Germany not further. “The problem is not this participation per se, but that Germany and the EU do not have a well thought-out geoeconomic strategy.”
The controversial decision could still have an aftermath. In the letter from the Federal Ministry of Finance to the Federal Chancellery, State Secretary Saebisch proposes an amendment to the Foreign Trade Act and the Foreign Trade Ordinance.
It is important that the federal government not only develop a common position in the coalition with a view to a European port strategy, but “comprehensively with a view to all equity investments by China”.