Co-leader of Germany's Green party and designated candidate for chancellor Annalena Baerbock holds a news conference in Berlin, Germany, April 19, 2021

A leading contender to succeed Angela Merkel as German chancellor this fall has called for “dialogue and toughness” toward China when it comes to defending democratic values and human rights.

Annalena Baerbock, the environmentalist Greens' candidate for chancellorship, told the weekly Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung that Europe should use its economic might to block Chinese goods made with forced labour and avoid communications technologies that endanger European security.

“We are currently in a competition between systems: authoritarian powers versus liberal democracies," she said in an interview published Sunday.

Baerbock cited China's investment in infrastructure and energy grids through Central Asia to Europe as “brutal power politics.”

“We Europeans mustn't kid ourselves,” she said, adding that the 27-nation European Union needs to act accordingly to defend its values, such as by using a recent investment accord between Brussels and Beijing to address more strongly the issue of China's putting its Uyghur minority into forced labour.

Baerbock, a graduate in international law, also took aim at Russia, in particular its support for rebel groups in Ukraine and the recent massing of Russian troops along Ukraine's border.

She backed Ukraine's right to apply for membership in NATO and the EU, but said “the most important thing right now is to increase the pressure on Russia so that the Minsk accord is adhered to."

That accord seeks to peacefully end the conflict in eastern Ukraine with Russia-backed rebels that has left at least 14,000 dead since 2014.

Against the backdrop of Moscow's aggressive behaviour, Baerbock criticised the German government's support for an underwater pipeline bringing Russian natural gas to Germany.

“I would have long withdrawn political support for Nord Stream 2,” she said.

The Greens have called for closer cooperation with the United States to defend liberal values worldwide, but Baerbock suggested that the goal of having NATO members spend 2 per cent of their gross domestic product on defence should be revisited in light of the pressing need to invest large sums to curb climate change.

She also suggested Europe's defence contribution could also come in the form of a cybersecurity centre.

“A blanket 2 per cent goal, on the other hand, won't achieve greater security,” she said.

The Greens emerged from the pacifist and environmental movements of the 1970s and 1980s, but in recent years have backed limited military deployments abroad, provided they are tied to UN resolutions.

Baerbock said the future of US nuclear weapons stationed in Europe could be raised again as part of the atomic disarmament negotiations between Moscow and Washington.

A poll published Sunday by weekly Bild am Sonntag put the Greens narrowly ahead of Merkel's centre-right Union bloc.

Germans will elect a new parliament September 26 that will then choose who should become the country's next chancellor. Merkel is not running for a fifth term.

The survey, conducted by polling firm Kantar, found 28 per cent of respondents planned to vote for the Greens, against 27% for the Union bloc. The centre-left Social Democrats are expected to receive about 13 per cent support while the far-right Alternative for Germany would get 10 per cent.

The poll of 1,225 voters found the pro-business Free Democrats would receive 9 per cent and the Left party would get 7 per cent of the vote.