City officials in the northern German port of Kiel were flattered this year when the Chinese port of Qingdao — about 40 times its size — proposed partnering up as a sister city. They rushed to embrace the offer.
The two cities had a history of cooperation dating to when the Germans helped their Chinese counterparts develop a sailing venue for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Both have substantial commercial ports, sprawling boardwalks and public beaches. It seemed a good match.
Almost too good, in fact, for security experts, who noted other, less innocent similarities.
Kiel, home to about 250,000, hosts much of Germany’s Baltic naval fleet, Germany’s equivalent of the Navy SEALs, military research facilities and big shipbuilders making, among other things, six brand-new, state-of-the-art submarines.
Qingdao, a city of more than nine million, is home to China’s North Sea fleet, a marine research academy and China’s main submariners school, which specializes in submarine hunting.
“It is obvious that Kiel could be of great interest as a navy port,” said Göran Swistek, a retired German Navy commander and security expert. “There are great opportunities to observe German or allied vessels from up close in Kiel.”
An ensuing outcry from security experts and federal politicians has now put a damper on Kiel’s plans. Although the City Council initially approved the partnership in March, it will vote on Thursday whether to form a panel to re-evaluate the partnership or even stop it altogether.
The swivet in Kiel speaks to a nascent shift in the German view of China, especially since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — and not solely because of Beijing’s backing of Moscow.
Once seen by Germany primarily as a lucrative export market, China today is recognized as an expanding global power. Having painfully weaned themselves off cheap Russian gas over the last year, Germans are wary of leaving themselves similarly economically vulnerable.
China would have huge leverage over Germany’s economy if East-West hostilities broke out over Taiwan. In 2021, Germany exported more than 100 billion euros’ worth of goods to China, making the country the second biggest market for German goods, after the United States. When it comes to cars — one of the main drivers of German industry — China is the biggest market.
Former Chancellor Angela Merkel frequently traveled to China with huge trade delegations. But her successor, Olaf Scholz, was widely criticized for doing the same last year, and an attempt by a Chinese entity to buy a container port in Hamburg has led to a monthslong dispute in his coalition government.
Many are now attempting to recalibrate the two countries’ ties, a delicate and sometimes tense process that was on display during a visit to Berlin on Tuesday by China’s foreign minister, Qin Gang.
During the meeting, Germany’s foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, told Mr. Qin that China could do more to help end the war in Ukraine. Last month, when she visited Beijing, she warned China against military escalation in Taiwan.
“China, as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, can play a significant role in ending the war if it chooses to do so,” she said Tuesday, referring to Ukraine.
Still, the vehemence of the opposition to the Qingdao partnership surprised the Kiel City Council president, Hans-Werner Tovar, who oversaw the start of partnerships with two other cities. After all, he argues, Qingdao and Kiel already have a friendly relationship, and both cities have sent delegations in the past.
“Those who say that this move is somehow massively significant and that the world will go under because of it — even if the exchanges have been going on all along, just not officially — knows nothing about municipal politics and even less about foreign policy in municipal politics,” Mr. Tovar said.
City partnerships, which generally consist of a formal agreement allowing for regular trade delegation visits, educational exchanges, local research collaboration and more, played an integral part in unifying Europe after World War II. Many German towns are paired with homologues in France and England.
Kiel, an especially outgoing city, has 13 such partnerships, with places as disparate as San Francisco and the Moshi district in Tanzania. Its partnerships with two Russian cities have been paused since Russia invaded Ukraine.
Mr. Tovar, who is 74 and will retire from his post early next month, compares the partnership with Qingdao to those with Gdynia, Poland, and Stralsund in the former East Germany, which were developed in the late 1980s before the fall of Communism.
“Municipal foreign policy is characterized by actually trying to break down barriers or not letting them form in your mind in the first place,” he said, adding: “If the Chinese want to spy, they definitely don’t need a city partnership to do it.”
But some security experts disagreed. “Access to sensitive facilities often depends on local contacts,” said Sarah Kirchberger, a security expert who specializes in China at the Institute for Security Policy at Kiel University and helped raise the alarm. “Not everything can be learned via cyberespionage.”
Another expert, Sandra Heep, who heads the China Center at the City University of Applied Sciences in Bremen, generally supports the kind of exchange that comes with city partnerships, but warns that in the case of China strict guardrails are required.
“We need more dialogue and more exchange with China,” she said. “But it is absolutely imperative to make sure that this does not lead to a situation where sensitive information, particularly information that could be useful to the Chinese military, flows to China, especially given the rising risk of a Chinese attack on Taiwan.”
Kiel is an especially ripe target now, Dr. Kirchberger and others have warned, because Chancellor Scholz’s pledge to inject 100 billion euros into the German defense budget has the port humming.
With an eye on Russia, just over the horizon of the Baltic Sea, ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems, one of Germany’s largest submarine builders, is leading a joint venture with Norway to build six new submarines.
Behind closed doors, managers at the shipbuilding company, which employs 3,500 people in Kiel, admit to being worried, according to two people with direct knowledge of the situation.
If the German impetus for the partnership comes at the city level, it is likely to be controlled at — or at least approved by — a much higher level on the Chinese side, Professor Heep said. “The Chinese side always generally acts more strategically than the German side.”
The friendship between the two cities began nearly two decades ago, when Qingdao approached Kiel to help it build a sailing venue for the Olympics. Kiel had experience hosting sailing events for the two German Summer Olympics, in 1936 and 1972.
“They told us, ‘We have no boats and no one knows how to sail — oh, and we’ve also never put on a regatta,’” Uwe Wanger, who helps coordinate Kiel’s city-run youth sailing program, said of the initial exchanges with representatives in Qingdao.
Kiel helped Qingdao establish a sailing scene and an annual “sailing week,” during which 600 local children learn how to sail on Optimist dinghies. “Kiel can take pride in the fact that we helped them get started,” Mr. Wanger said.
Others are less enamored of the friendship. One of them is Antonia Grage, 30, a conservative politician running for City Council in a coming election.
When she heard about the plan, she went to the press and ultimately convinced members of her party to vote against the measure, which did not stop it from passing.
Ms. Grage took issue with the partnership because she felt that a “totalitarian government” should not be rewarded with a city partnership.
“When you look at our other partners,” she said, “Qingdao just doesn’t fit into the picture.”