The Czech liberal government has made the Czech Republic one of the outposts of the campaign against “autocracies” and a base for political and military activities of Chinese, Russian and Belorussian opposition. It makes the country a potential target of retaliatory actions from Beijing, Moscow or Minsk. The recent development of Czech-Chinese relations is affected by this revision of the foreign policy, global geopolitical shifts and a new round of competition among major powers.
Strategic partnership undermined: Taiwan and Xinjiang
The relations between the Czech Republic and China were elevated to the level of strategic partnership in 2016 during President Xi Jinping’s visit to Prague which brought the peak of the bilateral relations and entailed the participation in the Belt and Road Initiative, the 16+1 mechanism (cooperation between China and the CEE countries)and a wide array of joint projects. In 2018, however, a long-term offensive aimed against the strategic partnership with Beijing began, being initiated by some interest groups. Given the fact that the then cabinet, headed by Andrej Babiš, tended to an independent and pragmatic position, the anti-Chinese activities remained limited to several parliamentary actors, media, and NGOs. Nevertheless, last year’s events brought about an unprecedented constellation when the liberal democratic mainstream dominated all decisive state bodies―the government, both chambers of Parliament, as well as the security and intelligence agencies.
It does not make a difference that the cabinet is composed of five political parties because all of them represent what is increasingly often called “extremist centrism”, “liberal extremism” or “liberal authoritarianism”. The current power constellation enabled the revision of the national foreign policy, accelerating the anti-Chinese activities that had been strengthening since 2018.They can build upon the pioneering official visit to Taiwan made by Senate chairman Miloš Vystrčil, the second-highest constitutional representative, in 2020. It marked the beginning of high-level political exchanges between Prague and Taipei. In 2021, a delegation led by Foreign Minister Joseph Wu arrived in the Czech Republic. The courtship intensified in July when the chairman of the Taiwanese parliament You Si-kun visited Prague shortly before Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Taipei. These high-level contacts contradicting the One China principle are but the most visible demonstration of the revision of the Czech foreign policy.
Deputies and senators have recently called upon the government to reassess its China policy, participation in the 16+1 mechanism and position towards Taiwan. In May, senators and deputies from the Committees on Foreign Affairs supported the inclusion of Taiwan in the World Health Organisation (WHO), United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) as well as International Criminal Police Organisation (Interpol). The Senate chairman publicly admitted that the scenario of the withdrawal from the 16+1 is already being discussed at the highest level and consultations with CEE partners and Washington are underway to prepare a coordinated action in order to mitigate China’s retaliatory measures. Moreover, politicians are about to discuss the issue of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Prague which serves as Taiwan’s representative office in the Czech Republic. The institution has not enjoyed diplomatic status so far. Under the current circumstances, however, the pressures to change the status quo to promote the Taipei Office to the level of the official diplomatic mission cannot be excluded. Naturally, it would entail an open diplomatic quarrel between Prague and Beijing.
The Czech government conducts a controversial policy not only in relation to Taiwan but also to Xinjiang. In November 2021, the General Assembly of the World Uyghur Congress was held in Prague. The assembly was accompanied by a wide array of PR events including conferences and public discussions with support from the US. The diplomatic mission together with such institutions as the National Endowment for Democracy, the US Department of State and George Soros’ Open Society Foundations massively fund local NGOs, influencing the political agenda in the Central European country.
An international hub for opposition
The reassessment of the Czech-Chinese strategic partnership goes hand in hand with the suspension of relations with Russia, internal securitisation and authoritarian turn. The revisionist ethos of the liberal policies refers to the heritage of the first Czech president Václav Havel who marginalised sovereignist aspirations of the country and sought a firm transatlantic unity with Washington. The Czech liberal establishment aspires to be recognised as the leading actor in the global enforcement of Western human rights and liberal democracy. Czech Foreign Minister Jan Lipavský calls for the establishment of an international criminal tribunal to judge the alleged Russian crimes, complete isolation and military defeat of Russia. In the meantime, the Czech version of the Magnitski Act was passed in June. The government tolerated a conference of Russian separatists who arrived in Prague a month later to declare the need for destruction of the Russian Federation, its division into separate units and demilitarisation.
At the same time, Belarussian opposition activities are not only tolerated but even supported officially. The highest constitutional representatives meet the president of the self-proclaimed Coordination Council Svetlana Tichanovskaia repeatedly, preparing the establishment of a headquarters for the Belarussian opposition in Prague, and considering the plan of forming parallel diplomatic structures, which applies not only to Belarus but also to China in relation to Taiwan. Recently it has been revealed that the Czech territory is used by the military wing of the Coordination Council for training diversionists to overthrow Alexander Lukashenko. The organisation is engaged in the conflict in Ukraine and cooperates with Ukrainian security forces.
The Czech liberal cabinet supports the US discourse and actively responds to hawkish tendencies among the US establishment to raise its value. The March Joint Statement from the US-Czech Republic Strategic Dialogue defines the basis of the current rapprochement and the Czech role in the US global policies. The Czech China policy coincides with the US Indo-Pacific doctrine with its emphasis on the US engagement in the region, the concept of indivisibility of Euro-Atlantic and Indo-Pacific security, as well as the global role of NATO. Through this prism does the Czech Foreign Minister interpret the Indo-Pacific as a new battlefield between democracies and autocracies, as a “place where the destiny of our freedom, values and our way of life will be decided”.
The Czech liberal revisionism has both its internal and external causes. As far as China is concerned, the ongoing revision should be assessed in terms of the US initiatives aimed at containment of the socialist major power. The conceptual and legal framework for this strategy was set by security and military doctrines, Donald Trump’s Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative Act and especially Joe Biden’s Strategic Competition Act of 2021. These embody the US bipartisan consensus that in turn stimulates revisionism in liberal democracies. The principal goals of the future Czech governments are, therefore, clear: to refuse hegemonism as an international practice, carry out a pragmatic redefinition of the foreign policy, based on the principles of peaceful coexistence, and last but not least adapt the country to the conditions of global polycentrism.