Czechia and Lithuania have broken from their European peers to take a more assertive approach towards relations with Taiwan. Their actions test the unity of the European Union’s China policy and the power of the single market.
Later in March, Markéta Pekarová Adamová, the speaker of the Czechia’s Chamber of Deputies, plans to visit the Republic of China – commonly known as Taiwan. Adamová’s visit will be the latest show of support for Taiwan by a Czech policymaker calculated to avoid severe retaliatory measures from Beijing.
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Lithuania has also taken steps to support Taiwan and express criticism of human rights abuses in mainland China. As a consequence, Vilnius has met with muscular economic coercion from Beijing, bringing other EU actors into a confrontation with China.
Both Czechia and Lithuania’s governments have histories of meeting with high-profile Taiwanese and Tibetan leaders that Beijing considers threats to its territorial integrity and Western recognition of it as the “one China”.
Václav Havel helped lead Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution in 1989 and became its president after the fall of communism. In January 1990, he invited the leader of the Tibetan government-in-exile, the 14th Dalai Lama, to visit Czechoslovakia, and after the Dalai Lama’s visit the next month, the two became close friends. Beijing views the Dalai Lama as a separatist persona non grata.
Havel also called for Taiwan to be given a seat in the United Nations (UN) in a speech at the UN General Assembly and hosted Taiwan’s former President Lee Teng-hui and Prime Minister Lien Chan. His public support for Tibet and Taiwan antagonised Beijing and set the tone for how Czechia has engaged with China.
In 2013, the same year Brussels adopted the EU-China 2020 Strategic Agenda for Cooperation, Miloš Zeman assumed the presidency of Czechia and began to seek closer relations between Prague and Beijing for economic reasons. Zeman made Ye Jianming – the chairman of China Energy Company Ltd (CEFC) conglomerate – an adviser, and CEFC began a series of seemingly puzzling Czech acquisitions including a football club and brewery. Zeman also had Czechia participate in Beijing’s Cooperation between China and Central and Eastern European Countries (China-CEEC) initiative.
A series of scandals and Czech domestic politics made Zeman’s new China strategy controversial. CEFC was revealed to be based on a Ponzi scheme and declared bankruptcy, and Ye was detained in China and disappeared. Czechia’s balance of trade with China grew more unfavourable.
To counter Zeman, Prague’s liberal mayor Zdeněk Hřib scrapped a sister-city agreement with Beijing, replacing it with a new agreement with Taipei, flew a Tibetan flag, and met with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen. Four faculty members at Prague’s Charles University were fired for taking secret payments from the Chinese embassy in an apparent attempt to influence Czech academia and politics.
The Czech parliament also took a more sceptical view of China than Zeman, creating a rift within the government. When the president of the Czech Senate, Jaroslav Kubera, announced he would visit Taiwan in 2020, Zeman urged him to cancel the trip and solicited a statement from the Chinese Embassy – which he then passed on to Kubera – that detailed the ways in which the trip could harm Czech-China relations.
Kubera died of a heart attack and his successor, Miloš Vystrčil, decided to continue ahead with the visit. Despite stark warnings from China, Vystrčil said he had not felt continued pressure from China after returning from the trip because “the entire democratic world had actually stood up for us and stood up behind our mission to Taiwan once we were threatened by the People’s Republic of China that we ‘will pay a heavy price’.”
He noted that “relatively cheap Chinese products” are “still readily available in the Czech Republic, and it’s not like the Czechs or any other nation will actually be boycotting purchases in the shops or stores.”
‘We don’t want to be too dependent on China’
Retired NATO general Petr Pavel won the Czech presidential election in January and will be inaugurated on March 9. Two days after his election, he became the first elected European head of state to have a call with president Tsai and said he hoped to meet her in person. Pavel has previously said he would visit Taiwan if elected president.
“To be honest, I don’t think there’s a perfectly good kind of conceptualisation of what Czechia wants to achieve in the end. This is reactive in a way,” Filip Šebok of China Observers in Central and Eastern Europe tells Emerging Europe. “Right now, it’s defined in mostly negative terms. We don’t want to be too dependent on China. We don’t want China to interfere in our domestic politics. We don’t want to watch China dictate who we can have relations with—which means, of course, Taiwan.”
The rift between Czechia’s president and legislature has created an awkwardly bifurcated foreign policy towards China which will be unified when Pavel takes office. However, Czechia is still unlikely to immediately take further actions that could antagonise China unilaterally.
“I know from Czech politicians that there are instructions for Czech officials to be as inactive in China-CEEC as possible—basically everything short of actually leaving it,” David Plášek, a China analyst at the European Values Centre for Security Policy in Prague, tells Emerging Europe. “At the same time, they also are afraid to do something too daring. There is some long-term plan to leave China-CEEC. But it would be ideal to do it with one or two other countries.”
Lithuania and China
While Czechia has largely succeeded in avoiding the worst of China’s wrath, Lithuania has not been as lucky. Although its ongoing trade dispute with China began only recently, like Czechia, its wariness of China is much older.
In March 1990, Lithuania became the first Soviet republic to declare its independence. While world leaders remained silent and took months or years to recognise Lithuanian independence, there was a notable exception: the Dalai Lama.
Less than a month after Lithuania’s declaration, he sent a telegram to Lithuanians expressing his support. In 1991, the Dalai Lama visited Vilnius and met with Vytautas Landsbergis, the leader of the once again independent Lithuania. Since then, the Tibetan leader has visited and met with government leaders three other times in 2001, 2013, and 2018.
This early and consistent engagement with the Dalai Lama had a chilling effect on relations with China. Trade between Lithuania and China stayed at relatively low levels. Only one per cent of Lithuania’s exports went to China, and China was only the 40th largest source of foreign investment in Lithuania. The Covid-19 pandemic meanwhile decimated the number of Chinese tourists that visited Lithuania.
In May 2020, Lithuania’s centre-left cabinet called for the World Health Organisation to invite Taiwan to its assembly and Beijing responded by cracking down on Lithuanian wheat imports. In September, Lithuania’s government made a joint declaration with the US on 5G security that restricted one of the only remaining areas of Sino-Lithuanian cooperation: mobile technology.
A new centre-right government was formed in October 2020 and vowed to pursue a “values-based foreign policy” with regards to Russia, Belarus, and China. It tabled a planned deep-sea port in Klaipėda – which China planned to help build, restricted the activities of Chinese tech companies in Lithuania, and withdrew from China-CEEC in spring 2021.
“[China-CEEC] was created to divide Europe—to split the Central and Eastern Europeans from Western Europeans,” Ruslanas Irzikevicius, the editor-in-chief of the Lithuania Tribune, tells Emerging Europe. “We want to speak to China, but we want to speak to China with one voice: the voice of the European Union.”
In mid-2021, the Lithuanian parliament overwhelmingly passed a resolution condemning China’s human rights persecution of Uyghurs in Xinjiang as a “genocide” as well as calling for the revocation of the National Security Law in Hong Kong and the dialogue between Beijing and the Dalai Lama.
When the Lithuanian government approved plans for the opening of a de facto embassy for Taiwan in Vilnius using the name “Taiwanese Representative Office” rather than globally-recognised convention of “Chinese Taipei”, China downgraded its diplomatic relations with Lithuania.
“We were right this time. You have to get out of China. You have to cut relationships. And this is what we are doing to our relationship to China, because sooner or later you have to. So let’s do it. We’re doing it now,” Irzikevicius says.
China retaliated by blocking imports from Lithuania as well as those made with Lithuanian parts from other EU countries including France, Germany, and Sweden. German companies urged Vilnius to de-escalate.
To offset the economic pain of Beijing’s measures and show its appreciation, the Taiwanese government announced it would invest 200 million US dollars into Lithuania and is taking Lithuanian goods denied entry to China.
In a statement for Emerging Europe, the Lithuanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that the main plan for future Lithuanian engagement with Taiwan is to cooperate in the fields of lasers, semiconductors and biotechnology industry, information technology, inbound tourism, transport, production of electric vehicles and the development of infrastructure, “attracting direct investment in manufacturing sectors that create high added value, agriculture and food export products to Taiwan.”
Challenges for the EU
Lithuania’s dispute with China has tested the EU’s ability to protect its single market in the face of economic coercion targeting a smaller member state. It has proposed an “anti-coercion weapon” that would allow it to more easily impose sanctions against countries using unfair trade practices.
In late January 2023, the EU initiated a trade dispute against China in the World Trade Organisation over its undeclared indirect secondary sanctions and other trade restrictions on Lithuania.
“Whether the WTO, at some point in the future produces the actual verdicts on the matter is not very consequential,” Professor Konstantinas Andrijauskas of Vilnius University tells Emerging Europe, as it amounts to a “naming and shaming strategy” by Lithuania and its Western allies that recognise the “very troubling precedent” it would set to allow China to violate global trade rules and weaken the EU’s single market with no response.
“China was not really willing to get into a major conflict with the EU and other major Western liberal democratic economic powers that, in effect, joined the actual bid in this regard,” Andrijauskas adds. “China backed down, and there are no public indications they are still using indirect economic sanctions at this particular time—or since mid-spring 2022.”
China’s strong response to Lithuania has reduced the appetite of neighbouring countries to collaborate with Beijing. In August 2022, Latvia and Estonia withdrew from China-CEEC. Beijing seemed unphased and did not meaningfully retaliate. How long it will remain unmoved is anyone’s guess.
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