When China's president Xi Jinping attends a special summit in Germany this September, will Angela Merkel still be the familiar face at the chancellery?
The question is by no means the toughest that Chinese diplomats will face in the weeks and months to come. On Tuesday, Norbert ROttgen, one of the fiercest China hawks in Germany's parliament, the Bundestag, entered the contest to be picked as the ruling CDU party's next chairman, potentially turning Berlin and the European Union's leading economy into a foe for Beijing.
For months, ROttgen, head of the Bundestag's foreign affairs committee, has led a campaign of intense activism against a bid by Chinese telecoms supplier Huawei Technologies to capture a major role in next-generation 5G mobile networks in Germany.
Two sources have told the South China Morning Post that Chinese diplomats in Berlin and Brussels were astonished when ROttgen announced his surprise candidacy to succeed Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer - Merkel's former protege - who has said she would not stand as chancellor in the next election and would give up the CDU party chair.
Merkel's own political future is now thrown into uncertainty, with many doubting she can achieve her goal of clinging to the chancellor's post until 2021.
"It would be a nightmare for China if ROttgen becomes the next CDU chair," a senior EU diplomat with experience in Chinese affairs told the Post on condition of anonymity. "ROttgen is probably the last CDU person China wants to lead Germany after Merkel."
ROttgen's lack of a strong base within the party is seen by German politicians as a potential obstacle to his ambitions of prevailing in the leadership race.
However, the complex process that is used to select the next CDU leader makes it difficult to predict the winner, especially because past CDU leadership contests have usually been less competitive than the current one.
When it comes to EU-China relations, Germany plays an outsize role. Not only is Germany the biggest economy in the union, but Merkel has generally taken a non-confrontational diplomatic tone with China, acting as a buffer against what could have been a joint EU-US effort to curtail China.
On 5G, the US is unhappy with the current German approach - a view that American ambassador to Berlin Richard Grenell made clear this week when he said the United States could cut off intelligence sharing with Germany if the country adopted "untrustworthy" suppliers.
Washington has said it believes that Huawei works as a "Trojan horse" for China's intelligence apparatus, a claim Huawei has denied.
For her part, Merkel has opposed attempts to single out the Chinese telecoms equipment maker, preferring instead to tighten security requirements on all the country's suppliers while delegating ultimate decision-making power to individual telecoms operators.
Her move came despite dissension within her government - including from the foreign and defence ministries - and in her party, from figures such as ROttgen.
"We should not increase our dependency on China, but reduce it - especially in such a sensitive area of critical infrastructure as the 5G network," ROttgen told Euro Magazine in January.
"The question is: Can we understand, develop and operate the technology ourselves? If this is no longer the case, then we make ourselves vulnerable and dependent as a state and society. Therefore, I advocate a European solution for 5G network expansion. We still have two European companies that can do that," he said, referring to Ericsson and Nokia.
The Chinese ambassador to Germany, Wu Ken, has been pressuring the German government not to ban Huawei. "If Germany were to take a decision that leads to Huawei's exclusion from the German market, there will be consequences," Wu said in December. "The Chinese government will not stand idly by."
While ROttgen did eventually sign on to the CDU's proposal, which stops short of a full 5G ban of Huawei, he did successfully deal a blow to the company's reputation in the German parliament by highlighting the risks it posed.
ROttgen, 54, was Germany's environment minister from 2009 to 2012 until Merkel dismissed him after he led the CDU to an embarrassing regional election defeat in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany's most populous region.
Another concern for China is President Xi Jinping's expected visit to Leipzig this September for his first meeting with all 27 heads of state in the European Union.
The meeting was Merkel's idea, according to diplomatic sources, designed to highlight EU-China relations while Germany takes up the rotating presidency of the European Union in the latter half of this year.
Whether Merkel will still be chairing that meeting - and whether the meeting will take place at all - now hinges on who becomes the next CDU leader.
If ROttgen or another likely candidate, Friedrich Merz, wins the race, Merkel might have to step down because of their earlier personal spats with the chancellor.
But if either of two other possible candidates - Jens Spahn or Armin Laschet - wins, then Merkel could possibly still be in her 15-year chancellor's seat when Xi visits Leipzig.
"The German political infighting is certainly adding a lot of headache to the work," a Europe-based Chinese diplomat told the Post on condition of anonymity.
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