Czech-Book Diplomacy: This Czech visit to Taiwan has shown, there is room for smaller countries to cut a path for improving their relationships with Taiwan—and it is more important to follow a foreign policy based on mutual trust and respect than one based on promises of money that may never come.
Channeling President John F. Kennedy’s famous 1963 “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech, President of the Czech Senate Miloš Vystrčil said, “I am Taiwanese,” to a standing ovation in Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan on September 1 to show his support for the country. Vystrčil, who is leading a 90-person delegation to Taiwan, has become a critical—and unexpected—figure in supporting Taiwan over China. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi—while touring Europe in a post-COVID attempt to reestablish goodwill—called the trip “an act of international treachery” and that the Czech Republic (Czechia) will pay a “heavy price” for “cross[ing] a red line.”
A Visit Months in the Making
Vystrčil wasn’t supposed to be the one to make the trip and give the historic speech. It was supposed to be his predecessor, Jaroslav Kubera, who died of a heart attack in January 2020. Kubera had planned to visit Taiwan in February before his premature death.
Kubera’s family members credit his death to threats made by the Chinese embassy in Prague. The Chinese embassy threatened economic retaliation in a January 10 letter if Kubera did not cancel his planned February trip to Taiwan. “Czech companies whose representatives visit Taiwan with Chairman Kubera will not be welcome in China or with the Chinese people. . . . Czech companies who have economic interests in China will have to pay for the visit to Taiwan by Chairman Kubera.” Czech President Miloš Zeman, who has pushed for greater economic cooperation with China under his tenure, reportedly asked the Chinese official to write the letter. Then, on January 17, Kubera attended a Lunar New Year celebration hosted by the Chinese embassy, where the Chinese ambassador continued to pressure him. Kubera died three days later.
When announcing the rescheduled trip in June, Vystrčil noted that China’s threats against both him and Kubera were primary motivations in making the trip. “I am inclined to uphold morals and values instead of counting money. Otherwise, sooner or later, we will realize we have nothing.” Kubera’s widow is one of the members of the delegation, showing how important Kubera had viewed the Taiwan relationship and the importance of upholding human rights and democracy in the face of authoritarian economic threats.
Vystrčil may not have been the one meant to have this moment, but he has taken Kubera’s mantle and showed how politicians can successfully stand up to China and brush aside threats made by Chinese officials.
There is Another
Vystrčil is not the only Czech politician on the trip to stand up to China. Prague Mayor Zdeněk Hřib has simultaneously shown his support for Taiwan and scorn for China.
In January 2020, Hřib inked a sister city partnership with Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je, who visited Prague to mark the occasion. The sister city agreement would seek to booster tourism and exchanges between the two cities. Before this deal, Prague and Beijing (as well as Shanghai) had been sister cities; the collaboration collapsed in October 2019 after Hřib sought to remove a “one China policy” clause in the partnership agreement so that it would not be political. The mayor explained that the way Beijing treated Prague during the negotiations pushed him to seek other options. The Beijing side didn’t treat him with respect and even canceled Prague’s Philharmonic Orchestra 14-city trip to China. The decision was also the result of Beijing’s unfulfilled promises of investment in Prague and Czechia.
And before the sister city swap, Hřib had refused the request of a Chinese diplomat to eject a Taiwanese diplomat from an event that he was hosting in Prague. He also started to fly the Tibetan flag at Prague’s city hall, restoring a previous practice that was scrapped. The mayor has consistently noted that he seeks to emphasize democracy and human rights, making it difficult to partner with China. He has explicitly stated his support for both Taiwan and Tibet, as well as ethnic minorities facing mistreatment and abuse in China.
Hřib coincidentally also has been the subject of Moscow’s ire, too, with a report saying that he was receiving police protection after being targeted by a Russian hitman.
Both Hřib and Vystrčil are members of opposition parties. The country’s president, Miloš Zeman, tows a different line when it comes to China. Zeman—who, as noted earlier, asked the Chinese embassy to exert pressure on Kubera to cancel his trip to Taiwan—had hoped to forge closer ties with China in the hopes of receiving a windfall of investment. In 2015, he was the only Western leader to attend a military parade in Beijing that marked the end of World War II. He has criticized the way in which other Western countries have treated tech company Huawei, which many governments view as a security threat and which the Trump administration recently imposed a number of restrictions on.
As in other countries, China has bought a number of high-value companies in Czechia. It has acquired Slavia Prague football club, airline operator Travel Service, brewer Pivovary Lobkowicz Group, and media companies. These key investments are often used as levers to make politicians less likely to speak out against Chinese actions.
In the five years since Zeman’s trip to Beijing, his views on China have slightly soured. Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, he announced that he was not going to attend a summit in Beijing because promised investment in Czechia hadn’t materialized. “I don’t think the Chinese side has done what it promised. I’m talking about investments.” Nevertheless, he still worked to stop the Taiwan visit before the untimely death of Kubera and disapproved of the rescheduled trip.
Zeman’s emphasis on favoring ties with Beijing has put him at odds with the population of Czechia, as well as the country’s Senate. In May, the Senate voted 50 to 1 in favor of the visit to Taiwan. In 2019, according to Pew, 57% of the population had an “unfavorable” view of China. One can only imagine what the number is now after everything that has happened with Czech-China relations since the beginning of 2020.
Renewed Threats from China
The Chinese Foreign Ministry has not sat idly by as the Czech delegation tours Taiwan. At a regular press briefing, Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian reiterated Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s threats: “Facing provocations from the Czech Senate speaker and the anti-China forces behind him, the Chinese government and people won’t sit idly by; they shall pay a heavy price for their short-sighted behaviors and political opportunism. We urge the relevant authorities of the Czech Republic to immediately take measures to eliminate the negative impact of this erroneous practice, so as to avoid damaging the big picture of bilateral relations.”
The Czechs, however, are not taking the criticisms silently. A Czech politician wrote an angry letter to Wang, calling him an “unmannered rude clown.” Czech Foreign Minister Tomáš Petříček summoned the Chinese ambassador to Czechia and issued a stern warning to Wang for his inappropriate comments. While Zeman’s government does not fully support the delegation trip, Chinese government threats against Czech citizens and companies cannot go unanswered.
The Czechs have also received international support. German Minister for Foreign Affairs Heiko Maas warned Wang about his threats during his trip to Berlin at a joint press conference. Former NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen expressed his support for the visit in the wake of China’s threats. President of the Slovak Republic Zuzana Čaputová tweeted: “#EU-#China relations are based on dialogue and mutual respect. Threats directed at one of the EU members and its representatives contradict the very essence of our partnership and as such are unacceptable.” It remains to be seen how European countries will support Czechia if China follows through on its threats of economic retaliation. How will the European Union respond if China singles out one of its members?
Such an overreaction by the Chinese government undoubtedly demonstrates the very reason for the Czech visit to Taiwan: that support for fellow democracies, particularly one continually threatened by China, is more important than promises of future investment that may or may not materialize. Threatening a member of the European Union should not be taken lightly, especially when the Chinese Foreign Minister made those threats while visiting Europe.
A Test for the TAIPEI Act
As the Czechs began their tour of Taiwan, the U.S. government sent its own signal of support for Taiwan. Previously classified cables about Ronald Reagan’s Six Assurances were released on the American Institute in Taiwan’s website, and the State Department announced a new economic dialogue with Taiwan that will focus on “semiconductors, healthcare, energy, and beyond.” These two announcements came only days after President Tsai Ing-wen announced the loosening of restrictions on U.S. pork and beef imports. These moves will help the United States and Taiwan to forge closer partnerships.
What the United States can—and should—do beyond solidifying the bilateral relationship is to encourage other countries to follow suit. The most clear step that the U.S. government should take is clearly explaining the inducements that the TAIPEI Act calls for. Part of the law states, “It is the sense of Congress that the United States Government should consider, in certain cases as appropriate and in alignment with United States interests, increasing its economic, security, and diplomatic engagement with nations that have demonstrably strengthened, enhanced, or upgraded relations with Taiwan.” It is still unclear what will happen to states that forge closer ties with Taiwan. Will Somaliland, which used the TAIPEI Act’s promises as one reason for establishing reciprocal representative offices with Taiwan, see an upgrade in its engagement with the United States? And will anything happen in U.S.-Czech relations after this high-profile visit?
These two countries are two initial tests for the TAIPEI Act and whether the United States will follow through and “reward” Czechia and Somaliland in some way for doing their part regarding Taiwan. If the United States provides tangible upgrades in engagement with these two states, then others may very well decide to visit Taiwan. If it does not, then the United States risks looking like an unreliable partner that doesn’t follow through on its promises, which is something that Beijing would happily exploit.
A Roadmap for Smaller Countries?
With this visit to Taiwan, Czech politicians can provide a model for how countries should deal with Taiwan and China. As I wrote last week about developments in the Taiwan-Somaliland relationship, China is used to getting away with treating smaller countries in a certain way. It expects deference due to its size and reacts poorly when smaller states dare to challenge it. The way in which Beijing treated Prague during the sister city negotiations personalized this treatment for Mayor Hřib: he was not comfortable with a non-political agreement being political. However, when it comes to Taiwan, Beijing insists on everything being political, and there is no room for compromise. As already noted, Beijing threatened Czech political leaders and companies. It expects small countries like Czechia not to challenge its so-called “core interests.”
In one sense, the “I am Taiwanese” speech had to come from a politician from a smaller country like Czechia. The Chinese government always reacts poorly when the United States seeks to cooperate with Taiwan: it did so when Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar visited Taipei last month. Secretary Azar could not have made the speech that Vystrčil gave in Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan. It had to come from a smaller country in order to show that smaller countries need not always show deference to China, even in the face of extreme threats. There is room to develop ties with Taiwan, and Beijing cannot dictate how another country carries out its own international relations. It remains to be seen if another country will follow the Czech example.
As this Czech delegation visit to Taiwan has shown, there is room for smaller countries to cut a path for improving their relationships with Taiwan—and it is more important to follow a foreign policy based on mutual trust and respect than one based on promises of money that may never come. Vystrčil summed up this viewpoint best when explaining his logic for the Taiwan trip: “If we focus on money, we will lose our values and the money, too.”
Thomas J. Shattuck is a Research Associate in the Asia Program and the Managing Editor at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.