Social Democratic Party leader Olaf Scholz appears most likely to be next chancellor. Vanuatu pushes for urgent action on climate change. US–China hostage diplomacy sends two Michaels and Meng Wanzhou home. By Jonathan Pearlman.

Germany waits for coalition after 16 years of Angela Merkel

German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin this week.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin this week.
Credit: Fabian Sommer / DPA via AFP

Great power rivalry

Germany: During her 16 years as chancellor, Angela Merkel has overseen Germany’s transformation into an economic powerhouse and the dominant force in Europe, and she was even feted – after Donald Trump won the United States presidential election in 2016 – as the leader of the free world. Germany’s unemployment has halved from 12 per cent since 2005 and its gross domestic product has grown by 34 per cent, almost double the increase in France and five times that in Britain. She has been heavily criticised for preferencing Germany’s economic interests over Europe’s, but she gained respect for her steadfast ability to withstand a seemingly impossible series of crises, including the global financial crisis, the European debt crisis, the migrant crisis, Brexit and the pandemic.

In the lead-up to Germany’s election last weekend, opinion polls showed she remained far more popular than any of the candidates seeking to replace her. And the election results indicated Germany is unenthused about entering the post-Merkel era.

Merkel’s centre-right party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), won only 24 per cent of the vote, its worst result since it was founded after World War II. The centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) won 26 per cent, leaving its leader, Olaf Scholz, the most likely candidate to become chancellor. But support for the two major parties is declining. The Greens Party had its best result, winning 15 per cent of the vote, the pro-business Free Democratic Party won 12 per cent, and the far-right AfD won 10 per cent.

Scholz, despite being from the SPD, was widely seen as Merkel’s natural successor. The SPD is the junior partner in Merkel’s coalition, and he has served as Merkel’s finance minister since 2018. He has promised to lift the minimum wage and shift to carbon neutrality by 2045.

Merkel will remain in power until Scholz, or possibly Armin Laschet, the CDU candidate, can form a coalition, which could take months. The nation’s divided politics make it even more likely that when Merkel finally steps down from her commanding position in Europe and the world, Germany will follow.

The neighbourhood

Vanuatu: The low-lying Pacific nation of Vanuatu is, according to the World Bank, one of the world’s most vulnerable nations to climate change. Its coastal areas are highly exposed, it has a precarious food base, and it experiences an average of more than two cyclones a year. Last year, for instance, tropical cyclone Harold affected about 159,000 of the nation’s 303,000 residents.

But Vanuatu, which has one of the world’s lowest carbon emissions per capita, has been at the forefront of the push for global climate action. Last weekend, it announced a plan to ask the International Court of Justice to issue an advisory opinion on the rights of current and future residents to be protected from climate change. It said it will work with other Pacific Island and vulnerable nations to request the opinion ahead of the United Nations climate summit in November.

“Current levels of action and support for vulnerable developing countries within multilateral mechanisms are insufficient,” the government said in a statement.

A court opinion would not be binding but could inform other climate litigation around the world. Previous advisory opinions have helped to shape international law on self-determination and genocide.

Democracy in retreat

North Korea: On Tuesday, as North Korea’s ambassador was about to deliver an address to the UN, the country launched a missile into the sea off its east coast.

According to Japan, the rocket was a ballistic missile, which are banned under UN sanctions. Shortly after it was fired, North Korea’s UN ambassador, Kim Song, addressed the UN General Assembly and insisted his country had a right to “develop, test, manufacture and possess” weapons systems.

North Korea’s international isolation has deepened during the Covid-19 pandemic, particularly after it closed its borders with China, its closest ally. It is facing food shortages and recently released rice supplies reserved for wartime.

Despite its economic crisis, it has continued to test a range of missiles and is believed to have restarted a nuclear reactor. South Korea, too, has been conducting missile tests.

Moon Jae-in, South Korea’s president, addressed the UN General Assembly last week and called for a peace agreement that would formally end the Korean War and lead to denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula. UN officials say they are willing to meet with their North Korean counterparts. But North Korea has sent mixed signals, saying it is open to talks but only after the US and South Korea abandon their “hostile” stance.

Negotiations have been stalled following a series of meetings between former US president Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. “Speed is not the thing,” said Trump after his last meeting with Kim in 2019.

Spotlight: China’s hostage diplomacy

Early last month, Joe Biden and Xi Jinping had a 90-minute phone conversation after the White House requested a call. It was the first contact between the two leaders in seven months.

Both leaders’ offices later said the discussion had been candid and constructive, but provided little detail.

Then, last weekend, rumours emerged that two Canadian detainees in China, Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, were about to be released. Spavor, a consultant, and Kovrig, a former diplomat, were accused of espionage shortly after the arrest in Canada of Meng Wanzhou, an executive at the Chinese telecommunications firm Huawei. She was arrested in December 2018 on fraud charges issued by the US, which wanted to extradite her. Last Saturday, Meng, and Spavor and Kovrig, were all released – their respective flights from Canada and China left at almost identical times.

Washington and Beijing have denied that they agreed to a prisoner swap. Yet, on Monday, the White House admitted that Biden and Xi discussed the fate of Meng and the so-called “two Michaels” during their recent phone call. Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said Xi and Biden raised the fate of the respective detainees but insisted “there was no negotiation”.

In China, the jubilant media ran live broadcasts of the return of Meng – a well-known figure who is the daughter of Huawei’s founder – but did not immediately report that the two Canadians had been released. Nor did Chinese media report that Meng had effectively admitted wrongdoing. The Chinese government says Meng was arrested for political purposes.

Washington’s reluctance to discuss the apparent deal may be due to fears it could encourage further hostage diplomacy by Beijing. In Australia, the release of the two Michaels led to renewed focus on the plight of two Australians in China whose detentions appear to be linked to the deteriorating ties between Beijing and Canberra. Yang Hengjun, a novelist and political commentator, has been held since January 2019. Cheng Lei, a news presenter for Chinese television, has been held since August 2020.

In February, Canada launched an international declaration that states will not detain foreign nationals as bargaining chips. So far, 66 states have signed up. China is not one of the signatories. 

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 2, 2021 as "Germany waits for coalition after 16 years of Angela Merkel".

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Jonathan Pearlman is The Saturday Paper’s world editor and the editor of Australian Foreign Affairs.

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