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Czech-Taiwanese relations on the rise

Some EU countries have decided on a clear position regarding China’s foreign policy aims. This could not have become more apparent when a plane filled with Czech people arrived in Taipei.

April 4, 2023 - Ladislav Charouz - Articles and Commentary

Czech Speaker of the Chamber of Deputies Markéta Pekarová Adamová speaks in parliament in Taipei, Taiwan on March 28 2023. Photo: jamesonwu1972 / Shutterstock

On March 26, Markéta Pekarová Adamová arrived in Taipei at the head of a 150-member delegation. Accompanying the Speaker of the Czech Chamber of Deputies were several members of parliament, university officials, security analysts, and around one hundred business representatives. As Pekarová Adamová noted, the delegation is the largest in the history of Czech-Taiwanese relations. Interest was so high, she said, that she could have filled a second plane with business representatives. The delegation was received by Legislative Speaker You Si-kun and Foreign Minister Joseph Wu.

The visit is part of a week-long mission to East Asia, which began with a multi-day itinerary in South Korea and will end after Pekarová Adamová returns from Taiwan. In Seoul, the speaker discussed cooperation in cybersecurity, nanotechnology and AI, as well as several other fields of cooperation between the two countries. She also opened an honorary consulate in Busan, South Korea’s second biggest city. 

The focus, however, is on the Taiwanese leg of Pekarová Adamová’s journey. The speaker’s itinerary includes a speech in the Legislative Yuan, a meeting with President Tsai Ing-wen, and various talks with ministers and industry leaders about, among other things, semiconductors and Taiwanese investment in the Czech Republic. She is also set to make a speech at National Taiwan University and visit a photo exhibition dedicated to former Czech President Václav Havel.

Pekarová Adamová’s diplomatic initiative is just one of several major gestures in a period of warming relations. The rapprochement began in 2019, when Prague Mayor Zdeněk Hřib revoked the decision of the previous city council to officially endorse the One China policy, according to which Taiwan is considered part of China. Amid the fallout, tours by multiple Czech musical ensembles to China were cancelled, and one Chinese firm reneged on its contract to buy 11 pianos from the Czech firm Petrof. More symbolically, Beijing revoked its sister city relationship with Prague, which Prague followed by reaching another sister city agreement with Taipei.

That same year, then-Senate President Jaroslav Kubera announced a planned visit to Taipei, receiving stern rebukes from then-President Miloš Zeman, then-PM Andrej Babiš, and the Chinese ambassador to Prague. The President’s Office went as far as forwarding a “threatening letter” from the Chinese Embassy to Kubera. Before he was able to make the trip, the senate president died of a heart attack. Kubera’s family alleges that stress caused by the explosive affair led to his unexpected demise.

Kubera’s planned visit was subsequently carried out by his successor, Miloš Vystrčil, who undertook it at the height of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020. The president and prime minister continued to oppose the trip, however as president of the senate — the only national institution controlled by the opposition — Vystrčil ignored their protests.

In the time since, the Czech political scene has changed significantly. Prime Minister Andrej Babiš was voted out in 2021, and President Miloš Zeman was replaced this spring by Petr Pavel. One of Pavel’s first actions upon his election, which perhaps unsurprisingly prompted a firm rebuke from China, was a phone call with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen.

The government consensus has been both foreshadowed and imitated by events at lower levels of Czech public life. In 2021, Prague’s European Values Center for Security Policy became the first private European think tank to open an office in Taipei. More recently, the Czech University of Defence signed a cooperation agreement with Taiwan’s National Defense University, a move understood as partly motivated by challenges posed by China.

The Taiwanese public has similarly shown a positive response to Prague’s overtures. In 2022, the Prague Philharmonia toured Taiwan following an official invitation prompted by the cancellation of the group’s tour to China. In response to Petrof’s cancelled piano contract, former Taiwanese diplomat Maysing Yang donated the company’s most “luxurious piano” to Prague’s Rudolfinum Concert Hall, home of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra. Another show of Taiwanese goodwill was the private donation of a respirator production line during the pandemic.

Warming relations between the Czech Republic and Taiwan are a growing cause for concern in Beijing. The Chinese Embassy in Prague has condemned both Pavel’s phone call and Pekarová Adamová’s visit, urging the Czech side to “adhere to the One China principle” and “to maintain the development of Chinese-Czech ties.” While China has not pursued any reprisals yet, there is a looming threat of the Czech Republic going down the path of Lithuania, another post-communist EU member. In 2021, the Baltic nation permitted the opening of a Taiwanese Representative Office, prompting Chinese accusations that Vilnius had reneged on its recognition of the One China principle. Since then, diplomatic representation between the two countries has been downgraded to the level of chargé d’affaires and China has stopped all imports from Lithuania.

China’s Czech headache, however, does not end with Prague’s relations with Taipei. Just this month, the Czech Chamber of Deputies banned the Chinese app Tik Tok from its devices, affecting both MPs and their assistants. A similar ban was put in place just two days later by the Parliament of Slovakia. Another issue that has returned to the table is the Czech Republic’s support for Tibet. Upon his election as Prague Mayor, Zdeněk Hřib returned to the practice of flying a Tibetan flag in March as part of the worldwide Flag for Tibet initiative and received Tibetan exile leader Lozang Sanggjä. More recently, Foreign Minister Jan Lipavský used his visit of India to meet with representatives of the Tibetan government in exile.

Echoing Václav Havel’s meetings with the Dalai Lama, these initiatives show that Prague’s recent reappraisal of its relations with Beijing and Taipei is not a simple matter of trade. While Pekarová Adamová touted Taiwan’s plans to support joint projects worth 33 million USD, she emphasised that Czech-Taiwanese “friendship is built on the values of freedom, democracy, and human rights.” Highlighting Prague’s political trajectory, she alluded not only to the Czech Republic’s hard-earned liberty, but also to its uncertain future in a continent threatened by populism and authoritarianism.

Ladislav Charouz is a former junior analyst at the European Values Center for Security Policy and an MPhil candidate in international relations at Oxford. He received his BA in English and a combined BA/MA in history from Yale in 2019. He has previously written for the China Project, the Center for European Policy Analysis, the Yale Politic, and others.

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