A Foreign Policy Pendulum: Explaining the Tension between Normative Impulses and Economic Interests in Czech-China Relations


The visit of Czech Senate President Miloš Vystrčil to Taiwan sparked a diplomatic row between the Czech Republic and the People’s Republic of China. Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs Wang Yi declared Vystrčil would pay “a heavy price” and the Global Times called Vystrčil “a political hooligan”. This, in turn, provoked critical reactions from not only Czech politicians, but also representatives of numerous European countries and indeed across the world.

Cityscape of Taipei

However, two important issues have been missing from media coverage of the visit - the roots of the complicated relationship between China and the Czech Republic and an assessment of the impact of the visit to European China policy.

Overcoming Communist Heritage? The Economization of Sino-Czech Relations

China has been a constant, though marginal, topic in Czech domestic political debates since the country’s independence in 1989. The foundations of Czech foreign policy were established by the country’s first president Václav Havel and his administration, based on their direct experience with communism. The new democracy therefore perceived China through the prism of its own history - as a morally objectionable, authoritarian actor whose policies and initiatives need to be opposed, rather than welcomed.

This approach started to crumble during the economic slowdown at the end of 1990s and again in the financial crisis of whereafter political representatives gradually accepted a more positive view of China as an economic opportunity for reeling Czech companies. In 2013, the Social Democratic government, backed by President Miloš Zeman, announced a restartof relations with China, preferring the policy of economic engagement that would allegedly bring benefits to Czech businesses operating in the Chinese market. Simultaneously, China showed interest in Central and Eastern European markets in order to diversify its exports which had become affected by the declining  appetite for Chinese goods in the Western markets post financial crisis.

What followed was a ‘honeymoon’ between Czech and Chinese governments characterized by a narrative of mutual profitability and friendship. Yet, the China-skeptic voices that dominated the Czech-China debate before the “restart”, did not disappear. Instead, they found new ground in criticizing the government’s impropriety in relations with China, pointing to murky clientelistic structures between Czech politicians and the pro-China business lobby. Further, many critics made sure human rights issues were not forgotten.

A conceptual deadlock on foreign policy on China among political parties and individual policy makers has been the ultimate result. Proponents of economic benefits criticized the principled, human rights-oriented standpoint, deeply-rooted in modern Czech political tradition, as impractical, while those who promoted more intense economic links with China were instinctively accused of morally corrupt stances. Political parties quickly discovered the attractiveness of the issue for media and general public, and China became frequently discussed in political debates, including during the Czech parliamentary and presidential campaigns.

Empty Promises and the Return of Normative Impulses to Czech China policy

Yet, despite the efforts of various Czech political and economic actors, the promises of economic benefits from closer ties to China, failed to materialize. Moreover, US and EU positions on China soured and their spillover effect served to benefit China skeptics. Since 2018, the Czech political discourse reverted to where it was in 1990s, now focusing not only on the human rights agenda, but also on security threats, economic imbalances, and occasionally even environmental issues (i.e. China’s contribution to air pollution).

In political debates, the opposition began to leverage Tibet and Taiwan as counterweights to the pro-China policy promoted by some politicians, including the president, and by economic elites benefiting from closer ties with China. Though Taiwan and Tibet are geographically and culturally - and virtually in all other aspects - distant from the Czech Republic, both have been perceived by many Czechs as fellow travelers in the sense of being small entities surrounded and threatened by a larger, menacing authoritarian regime. Of course, this resonates among a sizable part of Czech politicians and also the general public with the memory of Czechoslovakia being occupied by German forces during the Second World War and the Prague Spring of 1968 which ended with the intervention of Warsaw Pact troops.

In late 2016, during his visit to Prague, the Dalai Lama was received by a group of politicians including ministers of the government from the minority coalition member, leading to a diplomatic row with China. In 2019, the new ruling coalition in Prague, led by Mayor Zdeněk Hřib, set out to alter the sister city agreement between Prague and Beijing, that mentioned Taiwan as an integral part of China. Hřib argued that the article on Taiwan was inappropriate and a symbol of subservience to China. The Mayor also met with the Taiwanese President and the head of the Tibetan Parliament in exile.

In each instance, the Chinese Embassy in Prague reacted harshly, placing the Czech government in a precarious position. Relations reached a new low when the then-president of the Czech Senate, Jaroslav Kubera, announced his intention to visit Taiwan. The delegation would have represented the highest-profile visit of a Czech politician to the self-ruling island in decades. In response, Kubera received a letter from the Chinese Embassy, threatening repercussions for Czech companies if he proceeded with his plans to visit Taiwan, explicitly listing carmaker Škoda Auto, retail-banking provider Home Credit Group, and piano manufacturer Klavíry Petrof. When Kubera suddenly passed away in January, the plans for the visit were halted. Yet the issue was far from over. His successor, Miloš Vystrčil, expressed his intention to proceed with the visit to Taiwan, in defiance of the Czech President, Prime Minister, and Minister of Foreign Affairs and despite significant pressure applied by Czech-China business associations and Czech companies fearing retribution.

There were, however, also voices supporting the visit, including the voices of other Senators and MPs in the country as well as abroad, across the political spectrum. Just days before Vystrčil’s departure to Taiwan, an open letter backing Vystrčil was signed by almost 70 members of European Parliament and other national parliaments, including from Australia, USA, Canada, etc. Another letter in support was published jointly by the chair and co-chair of European Parliament Delegation to PRC and addressed to Chinese Ambassador in Brussels, showing a turning tide in the European approach to China.

Provoking Beijing? The Background and Impact of Vystrčil’s Taiwan visit

Vystrčil claimed that his visit had two goals. The first is to show the importance of values and value-based foreign policy which dictates cooperation with democracies around the world, such as that of Taiwan. In this aspect, Vystrčil directly linked his visit to the human rights-based approach in foreign policy and the legacy of Václav Havel. Secondly, he sought to “jumpstart” of Czech economy affected by COVID-19 epidemic by promoting the Czech Republic as a “gateway” for Taiwanese investment in Europe. Ironically, Vystrčil used exactly the same narrative of profitability that proponents of closer economic ties with China used years prior, merely replacing the word China with Taiwan.

Yet, behind the announced economic and value-based considerations lie pragmatic calculations. The country has been preparing for parliamentary elections in 2021 and presidential elections in 2022. In both, China will most likely - as in previous political debates in the Czech Republic - feature highly on the political agenda. Thus, the “China issue” seems a surefire way to attract media and public attention to score political points.

China’s reaction to the visit has been, so far, two-fold. On a rhetorical level, the Chinese diplomats and official media condemned the visit and threatened repercussions which attracted the international press. The practical level, however, is far more interesting. Despite rhetorical threats, none of the major Czech companies operating in the Chinese market have reported retaliatory effects. Only two smaller Czech companies (piano maker Petrof and car parts manufacturer Brano) have met with decreased demand for their products by Chinese business partners.

A Toothless Dragon? Critical Evaluation of Chinese Threats

In fact, China does not have many sticks which it can use to punish the Czech Republic. On international forums, the countries do not share a joint political agenda. Unlike in the case of Germany, where the green policy plays a significant role in domestic political debates, none of the Czech political parties made the fight against climate change a core policy. Regarding the economy, the trade exchange between the Czech Republic and China has been steadily rising, but mostly by the way of Chinese imports to the Czech Republic. Chinese foreign direct investment remains rather marginal (accounting for only 0.4% of overall FDI according to the the last available data from 2017), especially when compared to FDI from EU member states, such as the Netherlands or Germany. When looking at Asian investors in the Czech Republic, South Korea, Japan and also Taiwan far exceed the Chinese FDI.

Nevertheless, Vystrčil’s visit demonstrated the importance of the China issue in Czech domestic political debates. More importantly, however, the visit uncovered the fact that China’s threats may not be accompanied by action. This realization may lead other countries to follow the Czech example. There are already voices calling for closer cooperation with Taiwan and including Taiwan to the EU strategy on China. Some go even further to advocate for switching the diplomatic recognition from China to Taiwan. This may feel attractive for countries with little Chinese investment, a skeptical attitude to what China can offer, or past experience with unfulfilled Chinese economic promises.

While ditching One China Policy is so far not seriously discussed in Europe, disrupting the policy on the fringes through official visits and increasing the international credit of Taiwan may be seen by politicians as more attractive. In the end, Miloš Vystrcil’s visit may have paved the way for such inclinations to gain traction.