The election of retired general Petr Pavel as President has cast its shadow on the diplomatic relations between Czech Republic and China. Pavel who is considered as pro West and pro Ukraine, has openly sided with Taiwan whom China claimed its own part. Former army general and former chairman of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) military committee Pavel said that Prague would ‘seek to deepen its cooperation in all areas with Taiwan’. Pavel who spoke to Tsai on phone said that the self-ruled island is “a reliable partner” for cooperation in all areas. The call has already infuriated Beijing, which described the move as a breach of its sovereignty.
Pavel has further irked China when he said that Ukraine would be “morally and practically ready” to join the Western alliance once the conflict had ended. President-elect Pavel told that Ukraine should be allowed to join Nato “as soon as the war is over”. It may be mentioned here that China opposed the idea of Ukraine joining NATO. Days after the Ukraine conflict in March last year, China had warned the United States it could face severe consequences—including the prospect of nuclear war—if it allows Ukraine to join NATO, drawing the 30-member alliance into the country’s conflict with Russia. According to the state-owned Global Times, Beijing had warned that allowing the country into the alliance—as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has requested—would lead to an inevitable escalation in the conflict, prompting Russian President Vladimir Putin‘s threats to use nuclear arms against the West. Diplomatic experts, however, hinted that it could be a signal of cracks emerging in China’s relations with central and eastern Europe. Czech Republic has maintained official relations with China and only informal economic and cultural ties with Taiwan. Pavel’s telephonic call to President Tsai Ing-wen has marked an unprecedented departure from decades of diplomatic practice. What is significant here is that Prime Minister Petr Fiala came out in support of president elect. According to him, Czech Republic is a sovereign state and therefore makes its own decisions on whom its representatives will call and meet. Fiala clarified stating that Czech policy towards China remains unchanged and is in harmony with the policy of Czech allies. According to him, while it is necessary to respect that China is a trade partner, the Czech Republic also has good relations in economy, education and research with democratic Taiwan.
According to foreign affairs experts, Pavel has echoed sentiments of political leadership with regard to Taiwan. For instance, Czech cabinet has repeatedly declared its interest in cooperating with Taiwan, with regard to Taiwan’s democratic character. Outgoing Czech President, Milos Zeman, had maintained a pro-Chinese stance, but things will change in the days to come. In May last year, Czech Republic had started considering “ all options” covering its engagement with the China’s 16 +1 platform for cooperation with Central and European states. One of the available option was to make an exit from China’s ambitious 16+1 initiative. Such threats were based on the conduct of Chinese leadership. The failure of certain Chinese investment projects and Czech warning against Chinese 5G telecom technology were among a few. China had started 16 plus one initiative in 2012 with an intention to engage with Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries and promote business and investment relations. China and 16 countries of Central and Eastern Europe included Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Poland, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia and Slovenia. The 16+1 mechanism, which was later expanded to the 17+1 with the addition of Greece has been facing lots of challenges. With the exit of Lithuania, 17 plus one initiative has been reduced to 16 plus one initiative. If Czech Republic leaves, the initiative will loose its relevance, in all probability.
Initially, most CEE countries expected Beijing to invest in these countries and allow exports to China. After a few years, however, skepticism spread as few promises materialized. In fact, the CEE countries, and especially its 11 EU members, remain the region with the least Chinese economic presence in the world (measured, for instance, by shares of China in their exports or investment stock). The worsening of China’s relations with the West has also contributed to decreasing enthusiasm for China, while COVID-19 has further distanced China and CEE from each other. The escalation of the trade dispute between China and Lithuania was just the tip of an iceberg of structural tensions between China and the CEE region.