Czechia’s Taiwan overtures are about more than baiting China

That China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi described Czech Senate Speaker Miloš Vystrčil’s visit to Taiwan this week at the head of an 89-strong delegation of Czech business and political leaders as “an act of international treachery” will no doubt be viewed as confirmation by Mr Vystrčil that his trip to the Far East was nothing less than a resounding success. But there is far more to it than merely baiting China, despite the speaker doing just that as he channeled John F Kennedy during a speech in Taiwan’s parliament.

Echoing Mr Kennedy’s 1963 “Ich bin ein Berliner” attack on the Soviet Union, Mr Vystrčil told Taiwanese MPs: “Please allow me to use the same method to express support for Taiwan’s people. Allow me to be so humble but also resolute in saying to your country’s parliament that I am Taiwanese.”

“Taiwan and Czech have a similar fate as both are working hard to pursue freedom and democracy,” added Mr Vystrčil. “Law-making bodies all over the world should safeguard democratic principles, rather than suppress freedom through legislation.”

China has vowed to take “corresponding measures” over the visit, who said that Mr Vystrčil “would pay a heavy price”. Some Czech firms now fear that this could affect trade with China, which was last year worth around 25 billion euros, three times more than trade with Taiwan.

China views Taiwan as its territory under its “one China principle”, and few countries have formal ties with the territory, although an increasing number, including the US, are nurturing new economic relationships with Taiwan, especially in the field of technology and innovation.

It comes as no surprise that one of the most high profile events of the Czech delegation’s Taiwan trip was a visit to the Industrial Technology Research Institute (ITRI) in Hsinchu. The ITRI hopes that Czechia will assist Taiwanese industry in tapping into Europe’s innovation ecosystem and exploring new opportunities. A number of Czech universities and research institutes, including the Czech Academy of Sciences, already have links with the ITRI.

While the visit of Mr Vystrčil, a member of the centre-right Czech opposition, does not have the support of the Czech government, the fierce reaction from Beijing officials prompted ire from the Czechs, who summoned the Chinese ambassador over Mr Wang’s remarks.

“Minister Wang’s statement has crossed the line, such strong words don’t belong in relations between two sovereign countries,” Tomáš Petříček, the Czech foreign minister, said on Twitter.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas also warned his Chinese counterpart regarding his language over the Czech visit, while Slovak President Zuzana Čaputová voiced her support for the visit, calling Beijing’s threats “unacceptable”.

Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, said that Mr Vystrčil’s visit had been “an inspiration”, adding that “as long as we defend our common values, we will make our nations stronger together”.

Mr Vystrčil’s trip is not the first time that Czech politicians have baited China over Taiwan.

Last year the liberal mayor of Prague, Zdenek Hrib, approved a sister-city deal with the Taiwanese capital, Taipei. The Chinese city of Shanghai immediately ended its own sister-city deal with Prague.

“They have wantonly interfered in China’s internal politics and publicly challenged the ‘one China’ principle”, said Shanghai’s city government.

“China should not decide which cities Prague befriends,” responded Taipei’s mayor, Ko Wen-je. Mr Hrib has also spoken out in support of Tibetan independence.

The approach of Mr Vystrčil and Mr Hrib is in stark contrast with the line taken by the Czech president, Miloš Zeman, who has long been an advocate of Chinese investment in Czechia, including the tech giant Huawei.

In 2015, Mr Zeman promoted Czechia as a “gateway to Europe” for China and even appointed Chinese tycoon Ye Jianming as an adviser. Mr Ye’s CEFC China Energy invested heavily in the country until he was arrested in Beijing in 2018 on corruption charges.

As for Huawei, its chances of playing any role in the development of Czechia’s 5G network have been minimal since the country’s cybersecurity agency, NÚKIB, issued a legally binding warning in 2018 stating that Huawei posed a security threat.

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