The Czech Republic defies China

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Amid a growing backlash against the Chinese government’s actions, Milos Vystrcil, the President of the Czech Senate, led a delegation of Czech politicians and business leaders to Taiwan. Taiwan has had an independent government since 1949, but China regards it as part of its own territory. Any recognition Taiwan receives elicits swift retaliation from the Chinese government. China’s Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, called the visit “a despicable act” and suggested the Czech Republic will pay “a heavy price” for its actions. The trip signifies growing Western unease towards China – but what, if any, change will occur as a result?

In a speech given to the Taiwanese parliament, Mr Vystrcil echoed President John F. Kennedy’s famous phrase “Ich bin ein Berliner” and said, “I am a Taiwanese”. For Mr Vystrcil, the trip was an opportunity to showcase the Czech Republic’s support for liberal democracy, in stark contrast to Eastern European despots, like Viktor Orban and Alexander Lukashenko who brazenly suppress their own people. Mr Vystrcil will have also raised his own domestic political stock by supporting Taiwan: according to Pew, an American think-tank, some 57% of Czechs hold an unfavourable view of China. This stands in sharp contrast to the official Czech government’sChina-friendly policy, cultivated by the incumbent president Milos Zeman. This bodes well for Mr Vystrcil as he positions himself for a presidential run in 2023.

The trip signifies growing Western unease towards China.

Many governments will no doubt be wondering if a small nation such as the Czech Republic can defy China and walk away without facing any serious consequences, what is to stop them from doing so? Zdenek Hrib, the liberal mayor of Prague, has pointed out that “The world is seeing that China can do little to hurt the Czech Republic”, but this is not necessarily true for everyone.

Two reasons have meant the Czech Republic has escaped Beijing’s traditional policy sticks. Although a prominent political figure, Mr Vystrcil does not represent official Czech policy, and many analysts have also pointed out that the Czech Republic is unique among European nations in that its economy is far less dependent on China for goods and services. As a result, the Czech Republic is unlikely to pay a heavy price.

It will be tricky to ascertain whether this trip will have any meaningful policy impact. Some argue it simply crystalised the European Union’s change in China policy which has begun since the start of the pandemic. Before, the EU had been wary not to get caught up in the superpower dispute between the United States and China. As the EU’s attitude to China hardened, Mr Vystrcil’s backing of Taiwan suggests he was following the crowd in EU policy rather than leading. We may look back on Mr Vystrcil’s “I am a Taiwanese” much as we look back on President Kennedy’s speech – but for now, solid policy change across the West has yet to follow.

Image: by Ak Pk via Flickr

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