By Paul Carrel
BERLIN (Reuters) - Angela Merkel's decision to give up the leadership of her Christian Democrats while staying on as German chancellor is a risk and an experiment, her protege and would-be successor Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer said on Wednesday.
The conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) decides at a conference next month who will succeed Merkel as party leader, and whoever wins will be in pole position to become chancellor of Europe's economic powerhouse.
Kramp-Karrenbauer, the party's centrist general secretary, is one of two leading candidates. She is so widely seen as the continuity option that she is dubbed "mini-Merkel".
Merkel had said the party leadership and chancellorship should be held by the same person, until her decision last month to separate the two posts.
"It is a risk, it is an experiment," Kramp-Karrenbauer told a business conference hosted by the Sueddeutsche Zeitung. "Whether it succeeds, the coming months will show."
Merkel's awkward coalition with the Social Democrats (SPD) has come close to collapsing twice and further infighting in her conservative bloc could prompt the centre-left partner to pull out.
The chancellor's decision to give up the party leadership highlights her waning authority, dented by two regional election setbacks this year and a close ally losing his role as leader of her conservatives' parliamentary group.
A poll last Friday for ZDF television showed 35 percent of CDU supporters backed Kramp-Karrenbauer to lead the party, with 33 percent favouring Friedrich Merz, a businessman and lawyer returning to politics after 10 years in the private sector.
Differences are emerging in their visions for Europe and for dealing with China - he bolder, she more cautious.
"With every wish to take Europe forward with a German-French nucleus, the proposals must always fit with German interests," Kramp-Karrenbauer said on Wednesday, adding that Europe must move towards a banking union, "but first the risks must be minimised so that it is acceptable in German interests as well."
By contrast, Merz last week made unusually frank comments on currency policy for someone seeking a frontline political position, saying Germany had benefited greatly from the euro and as a result had a responsibility to "contribute more" to hold together the EU.
On Wednesday, he told newspaper Bild in a video interview that Europe ultimately needed its own source of tax.
Asked whether there should be less Chinese investment in Germany, Kramp-Karrenbauer told the business conference the government should "look carefully at which sectors this can be sensitive to, and touch on security aspects - and then decide."
Last week, Merz, describing himself as "a free-trade man", said Berlin's approach of reviewing Chinese acquisitions of German companies was "a second or third best solution.
"...This is something which you have to lift up onto a higher level in terms of international agreements."
On the issue of taxation in Germany, both said reforms were needed.
Merkel said on Tuesday it would be counter-productive for her to express any preference in the CDU leadership debate.
(Additional reporting by Michelle Martin and Madeline Chambers)