Czech Official’s Taiwan Trip Complicates Beijing’s European Ambitions

As tensions with the U.S. have been escalating in recent years, Beijing has been increasingly looking to as a platform for new trade deals and expanding global influence. While the larger economies of Western Europe responded to China’s courting with regulations limiting FDI and foreign takeovers, Beijing has made more progress in Central and Eastern Europe. Amid this drive, the , led by pro-Beijing President Milos Zeman, has declared the goal of becoming “an unsinkable aircraft carrier of Chinese investment expansion.”

This week, in opposition to President Zeman, head of the senate and second highest-ranking Czech official Milos Vystrcil traveled with a 90-member delegation of political and civic leaders to Taiwan, a move that alone would surely meet backlash from Beijing—as U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar did earlier this month when he became the first high-level American official to visit the island in 40 years. (Vystrcil becomes the highest-ranking Czech official to visit since the nation’s first president Vaclav Havel, himself a close and public friend of the Dalai Lama.) Delivering a speech in Taipei on Tuesday, Vystrcil directly invoked the Cold War battle against Soviet communism by declaring “I am Taiwanese” in Mandarin, drawing quick and virulent anger from Beijing. At Reuters, Ben Blanchard and Joseph Nasr report:

Addressing Taiwan’s parliament, Vystrcil said Kennedy’s declaration he was a Berliner was an important message for freedom and against communism.

“Please let me also express in person my support to Taiwan and the ultimate value of freedom and conclude today’s speech … with perhaps a more humble, but equally strong statement: ‘I am a Taiwanese,’” Vystrcil said, receiving a standing ovation.

[…] Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech in 1963, telling the frightened people of West Berlin who were surrounded on all sides by Communist East Berlin that he was also a Berliner, is an address often called Kennedy’s best.

Vystrcil has said his Taiwan visit underscores the “values-based” foreign policy put in place by late President Vaclav Havel, an anti-communist dissident and personal friend of the exiled Tibetan leader, the Dalai Lama.

While the Czech government has not supported his visit, it has been upset by China’s strong condemnation and has summoned the Chinese ambassador. Beijing on Monday also summoned the Czech ambassador for a telling-off. [Source]

As tensions between Beijing and Western governments have steadily ratcheted up in recent months, some commentators have described an emerging Cold War, while others have warned against using that term.

At the South China Morning Post, Sarah Zheng reports on seething backlash from China’s foreign ministry and state press:

While on a trip to Germany, Wang told reporters early on Monday that the Chinese government would not sit idly back after the “public provocation” by Milos Vystrcil, the president of the senate, and slammed “anti-China forces backing him”.

“To challenge the one-China principle on Taiwan is to make an enemy of 1.4 billion Chinese people, and is an international breach of trust,” Wang said. “We must make him pay a heavy price for his short-sighted actions and political opportunism.”

His trip comes at a time when Taiwan has sought to shore up international support, and as concerns have grown in Europe over how to address Beijing’s increasingly assertive foreign policy.

[…] Chinese state media also criticised the visit, with the nationalist tabloid Global Times writing in an editorial on Sunday that Vystricil was a “rule-breaker who is trampling on diplomatic civilisation”, swayed by the United States.

“His gilding for his evil deeds is a manifestation of being a political hooligan,” it said. “Vystrcil is attracting eyeballs and promoting his status by visiting Taiwan.” [Source]

The angry threat from Wang Yi has drawn criticism from Czech leaders and from across Europe. Reuters’ Ben Blanchard reports on statements from Taipei, where on Thursday Vystrcil met with President Tsai Ing-wen, unsurprisingly drawing further ire from Beijing:

China’s “vulgar threats” over a visit by the Czech Republic’s senate speaker to Taiwan are like a cold, unwelcome winter wind and contrast with the courteous words the speaker offered while in Taiwan, a senior Taiwanese politician said on Thursday.

[…] Speaking with Vystrcil by his side Taipei, Taiwan parliament Speaker You Si-kun praised his “stirring” speech at the legislature.

Vystrcil “was gentle and elegant, a paragon of a cultured country, like spring sunshine, splendid and warn – Taiwan’s people were deeply moved”, You said.

“Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s vulgar threats however were like a cold, unwelcome winter wind that cause discomfort.”

Vystrcil said he had invited You to lead a delegation to Prague for what he termed a “working visit”, and dismissed China’s criticisms. [Source]

The trip to Taipei was originally planned by Jaroslav Kubera, Vystrcil’s predecessor as Senate Speaker who died of a heart attack in January. At Bloomberg, Lenka Ponikelska and Andrea Dudik report that Ponikelska’s family has cited government pressure against the Taiwan trip as a contribution to his death, and describe how the sharp rift in Prague over its approach to China has created a new arena of great power influence :

Senate Speaker Milos Vystrcil, who headed to Taipei this week, is not just facing threats from Beijing but is also ignoring opposition to his trip from China-friendly President Milos Zeman. It’s that level of politically induced stress that his 72-year-old predecessor, Jaroslav Kubera, endured before a fatal heart attack in January.

While the Czech Republic tends to toe the EU line on foreign policy, the nation of 10.7 million has entered an unlikely and worsening spat with China, its fourth-biggest trading partner. In reality, though, politicians are Division over relations with Beijing, where some favor close economic ties and others are appalled by China’s human-rights record.

That’s opened a fault line that China can exploit as it grapples with the U.S. for influence in Europe. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo toured Europe last month, including a stop in Prague, where he labeled China a greater threat than Russia.

Some of those tensions have been translated to Taiwan, which China regards as a renegade province — Beijing condemns any outside diplomatic activity related to Taipei as interference in its affairs. U.S. Health Secretary Alex Azar became the most senior American official to go there in decades when he visited last month. […] [Source]

In a report briefly outlining the history and geopolitical significance of the rift between Prague and Beijing, the Nikkei Asian Review’s Yu Nakamura and Tsukada Hadano note that the trip has “push[ed] cross-strait relations to the diplomatic forefront.” The report also notes President Tsai’s establishment of historical solidarity with Vystrcil in their Thursday meeting:

“Like the Czech Republic, Taiwan has traveled a difficult road, opposing authoritarianism and fighting for democracy and freedom,” Tsai told Vystrcil during their meeting.

“Senate President Vystrcil and his delegation members have taken a major step that will set off a different sort of new wave,” she said.

Vystrcil responded that the Czech Republic will “lead the European Union” on Taiwan.

[…] The Czech Republic in 1989, called Czechoslovakia at the time, forced out its communist leadership through nonviolent protests in what came to be known as the Velvet Revolution. Former President Vaclav Havel, who led that movement, had advocated for Taiwan’s acceptance by the global community.

China has been ramping up pressure on Taiwan, especially after a trip there last month by U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, the highest-ranking American official to visit since Washington cut diplomatic ties to the island in 1979. Defense Ministry spokesperson Wu Qian said on Aug. 27 that China is conducting large-scale war exercises in the Taiwan Strait. […] [Source]

See also a 2017 CDT interview with Czech-based Project Sinopsis’ foundert Martin Hála and editor Anna Zádrapová on the relationship between Beijing and Central and Eastern European countries, and a series of CDT guest columns by staff exploring the China-CEE relationship.

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