By Judy Dempsey
BERLIN - Chancellor Angela Merkel, under fire from her Social Democratic coalition partners over her handling of human rights in Russia and China, defended her policies Wednesday, saying that as chancellor it was she who decided whom to receive and where.
Her remarks, made to the mass circulation Bild Zeitung, were seen as an attempt to end what is becoming an internal struggle over how to deal with some countries, particularly Russia and China which have close economic relations with Germany despite poor human rights records.
"I wish that everybody in the government will now close ranks on this position," Merkel said. "If we don't, then China's respect for us will certainly not grow."
Merkel received the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists, in September in the Chancellery. Since then, China has retaliated by canceling several high-level meetings. It has not, however, taken any measures against Canada, Australia or the United States, whose leaders also met with the Dalai Lama.
China's retaliation, which so far has not affected German business, has been exploited by some inside the leadership of the Social Democrats. As the junior partner in the coalition, the Social Democrats are no longer supporting Merkel's foreign policy, which emphasizes human rights and European values.
Some have gone on the offensive - to the extent that the foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, a Social Democrat and now vice chancellor - has several times broken ranks with cabinet policy over Russia and China. He has accused Merkel of seeking headlines in her defense of human rights.
Some legislators said that challenging Merkel on foreign policy, one of her strong points, could backfire for the Social Democrats because her firm stance on human rights has so far been supported by public opinion.
"The Social Democrats, when it comes to foreign policy, are leaving the path of human rights," said Karl-Theodor Guttenberg, a foreign affairs expert for the Christian Social Union, an ally of Merkel's Christian Democratic Union party. "This could backfire."
It could also be damaging for the European Union which has been trying to establish a coherent, united policy toward Russia and China. "The disunity inside the German coalition sends completely the wrong signal to other EU member states," Guttenberg said.
But others said Merkel should pursue quiet diplomacy. "It is what we always did," said Hans-Ulrich Klose, the Social Democrat deputy chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Bundestag. "In any event, it is time to stop these disputes. They do not help anyone."
In the business community, there is concern that the dispute between Germany and China could escalate. But there is also nostalgia for former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's Social Democratic-led government that actively promoted trade ties with Russia and China while disregarding human rights.
Steinmeier, who was Schroder's chief of staff, had to switch policy quickly and support Merkel when he was appointed foreign minister more than two years ago. But this support changed at the Social Democrats' party convention last month. Last week the vice chancellor and labor minister, Franz Müntefering, resigned.
Steinmeier, who is also a vice chairman of the party, said at the convention that Merkel was seeking headlines and gaining little in return by publicly raising human rights and meeting with the Dalai Lama. Martin Jäger, the Foreign Ministry spokesman, said Wednesday that Steinmeier's speech in Hamburg was for party consumption and had not been made in his role as foreign minister.
Wolfgang Schäuble, the conservative interior minister, said Steinmeier was out of line. His opposition to the meeting between Merkel and the Dalai Lama was "absurd," he said.
"Every German foreign minister had received the Dalai Lama," Schäuble said. "But not Steinmeier."
Steinmeier, the second-most-popular politician after Merkel according to polls, is anxious to improve his standing inside his own party and might challenge Merkel in the 2009 federal election, according to party officials. "Steinmeier has to decide if he is serving Schröder or Merkel. He has not made that clear," Guttenberg said.
Schröder has also stepped up his criticism. He has accused Merkel of being too emotional and said that her past - Merkel was raised in communist East Germany - has influenced her foreign policy. "One can philosophize about an energy policy grounded in values. But the gas is very much needed in the real world," Schröder said last weekend during an annual conference organized by the BMW-Quandt Foundation.
Conservative and even Social Democratic legislators said Schröder's comments were in poor taste and carried no credibility because he was on the payroll of Gazprom, Russia's giant state-owned energy company which is building a Russia-German gas pipeline under the Baltic Sea. "A former No. 1 should not criticize the present No. 1," Klose said.