Pro-China demonstrators clash with a Czech national in Prague in a 2016 file photo. Image: Facebook

PRAGUE – “An act of international treachery” was how China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi described Czech Senate President Milos Vystrcil’s official visit to Taiwan this week.

Amid a broad downturn of Beijing’s relations with Europe, the trip is certain to impact more than just bilateral ties between China and what a Chinese tabloid mockingly called a “small, remote Central European country.”  

In the highest-level exchange ever between the Czech Republic and Taiwan, Vystrcil will meet Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen on September 3.

Vystrcil billed his visit as a simple trip to a democratic state that shares the Czech Republic’s values, but for Beijing it’s a very public snub and an affront to its “one China” policy, which considers Taiwan as a renegade province, not an autonomous or even rival Chinese state.

Speaking from Berlin this weekend, as part of his damage-control tour of European capitals, Foreign Minister Wang warned that Beijing would retaliate forcefully against Vystrcil and possibly the Czech firms that made up his delegation.  

“The Chinese government and Chinese people won’t take a laissez-faire attitude or sit idly by, and will make [Vystrcil] pay a heavy price for his short-sighted behavior and political opportunism,” he said.

It isn’t yet clear how China’s communist government may respond, but analysts argue Beijing has weakened its own position through threatening rhetoric.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi makes a point in a file photo. Image: Facebook

If Beijing doesn’t follow through with its threats, other European officials could feel comfortable in making their own visits to Taiwan. If it does lash out, it will worsen already deteriorating relations with the Czech Republic, which will inevitably be viewed as the innocent party by other European governments.

Moreover, the mounting saga demonstrates that Beijing feels entitled to dictate where a senior, elected European politician can and cannot travel.

The Czech Republic “will cooperate with democratic countries, regardless of whether someone else wants it or not,” Vystrcil spelled out in a press release before his trip.

It arguably couldn’t come at a more difficult time for Beijing. Foreign Minister Wang has been on a tour of European capitals the past two weeks, which pundits described as an attempt at damage control as China’s relations with the continent has worsened since March.

This is partly due to China’s human rights abuses in Xinjiang province and its imposition of direct rule over normally autonomous Hong Kong, as well as Beijing’s disinformation campaigns and attempts to influence European internal affairs following the Covid-19 outbreak on the continent.

Over the weekend, the European Union’s top diplomat Josep Borrell used his most critical language to date to describe China’s rise. China, he wrote in an op-ed, is a “new empire” as dangerous to Europe as Russia, which in 2014 annexed parts of Ukraine.

“Russia, China and Turkey share three common characteristics: they are sovereignists on the outside and authoritarian on the inside,” he wrote, adding that to “peacefully negotiate and settle conflicts [with] these new empires, built on values other than our own, we too must necessarily learn to speak what I have called the language of power.”

Vystrcil’s visit to Taipei comes just a week after US Health Service Secretary Alex Azar traveled to Taipei, the first high-ranking American official to do so, and a fortnight after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo toured the Czech Republic.

Czech Senate speaker Milos Vystrcil seen wearing a face mask with Taiwan and Czech republic flags on it at the Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport ahead of the arrival of the Czech business and senatorial group to Taiwan. Photo: AFP

Pompeo said during his trip before the Czech Senate that “the Chinese Communist Party’s campaigns of coercion and control” could be seen as a greater global threat than posed by the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

The US diplomat’s comment was clearly intended to resonate in the Czech Republic, a former communist state that was invaded by Soviet troops in 1968 intent on putting down the “Prague Spring”, a rebellion to liberalize the country and push back against Moscow’s hegemony in Eastern Europe.    

It also comes as Czech-China relations have soured considerably over the last year.

Vystrcil’s predecessor, Jaroslav Kubera, who died in January, had arranged a visit to Taiwan last year. In a letter written to Kubera before his death, the Chinese embassy in Prague warned that if he went ahead with his plan then Beijing would respond punitively.

This was assumed to mean trade reprisals against Czech companies, especially the automobile giant Skoda. Months later, Prime Minister Andrej Babis publicly said that Beijing should replace its ambassador in Prague because of these warnings.

Leading the anti-Beijing charge has been the mayor of Prague, Zdenek Hrib. Last year, he canceled the capital’s sister-city relationship with Beijing and said he would replace it with an agreement with Taipei, Taiwan’s capital city.

Hrib, a member of the opposition Pirates Party, has also flown Tibetan flags from city hall and repeatedly criticized Beijing’s human rights abuses. Beijing retaliated last year by banning the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra from touring China.

In some ways, the Czech Republic’s rising hostility towards China is a domestic affair.

Mayor of Prague Zdenek Hrib (left) and the mayor of Taipei Ko Wen-je walk at the Old Town Square in Prague on January 13, 2020. Photo: Michal Cizek/AFP

President Milos Zeman, who critics say is leading the country towards autocracy, has promoted alliances with Russia and China since taking office in 2013. In 2015, he offered up the Czech Republic as China’s “gateway to Europe.”

He later appointed as a special adviser Ye Jianming, a Chinese tycoon whose firm CEFC China Energy bought up several Czech firms, including the country’s historic Slavia Prague soccer team, before he was arrested in China in 2018 on corruption charges.

The Czech Republic’s largest protests seen since the dissolution of communism in 1989 took place last November, as demonstrators protested against what they consider the autocratic and corrupt rule of Zeman and Prime Minister Babis, one of the country’s richest men.

As such, anti-Beijing sentiment is frequently a counterpart to criticisms about increasing autocracy and corruption within the country’s political system, as well as the Czech Republic’s shift away from its historic Western-oriented and human rights-focused foreign policy.

Leading the charge has been the opposition Pirate Party, the third-largest party in parliament. Yet they aren’t alone.

Vystrcil is from the Civic Democratic Party (ODS), the country’s second-largest party in parliament, which sits in opposition, while other smaller opposition groups have also grown increasingly skeptical of China’s interests in the country.

In May, the Czech Senate voted 50 to 1 in favor of Vystrcil’s diplomatic visit to Taipei, a clear sign that the upper house thought it worth the apparent risks.

The Czech public is also mostly supportive of anti-Beijing initiatives. A Pew Research Centre survey from last year found that only 27% of Czechs have a favorable view of China, the second-lowest in Europe after Sweden.

A scathing editorial published on August 30 by the Global Times, China’s ultra-nationalist state-run tabloid, rebuffed Vystrcil’s visit to Taiwan as a mere “opportunistic stunt” intended to boost the politician’s popularity back home.  

Czech President Milos Zeman (right) and Chinese President Xi Jinping look on before signing a bilateral treaty of strategic partnership on March 29, 2016, in Prague. Photo: AFP/Michal Cizek

“Vystrcil is a rule-breaker who is trampling on diplomatic civilization. His gilding for his evil deeds is a manifestation of being a political hooligan,” the editorial said, before going on to call for Beijing not to be “riled” by his visit.

“China has gone through ups and downs in its ties with the US, so a Czech Senate speaker who comes to Taiwan to seek troubles is just a nobody,” it added, with apparent scorn for what it called “a small, remote Central European country.”

Exactly how Beijing will try to punish Vystrcil, who presumably has no personal or financial interests in China, is uncertain. One assumes Wang’s threat of retaliation also extends to others in Vystrcil’s 90-member delegation who visited Taiwan this week.

This includes several Czech businesspeople taking part in a Taiwan-Czech investment forum starting on August 31, organized by the American Institute in Taipei.

If so, this would further alienate the Czech politicians still seeking close ties to China. China-Czech Republic trade was worth nearly US$30 billion last year.

Czech Foreign Minister Tomas Petricek was publicly critical of Vystrcil’s trip to Taiwan before he left and openly stated that the Czech government didn’t support it.

Yet, following the direct threats by his Chinese counterpart at the weekend – which Vystrcil blasted as “interference” in Czech internal affairs – Petricek was forced to respond forcefully against Beijing and has said he would summon the already controversial Chinese ambassador for an explanation.

Protesters with Tibetan flags walk past supporters of the Chinese president as protests against the visit by China’s president were seen on March 29, 2016, in Prague. Photo: AFP/Michal Cizek

“I expect that the Chinese side will explain [the remarks by Wang] to us. The trip has of course an impact on relations with China, but I think that this has crossed the line,” Petricek was quoted as saying by local media.

Beijing, no doubt, is also wary of how Vystrcil’s trip looks to other European politicians, especially amid calls mainly from opposition parties on the continent for their governments to develop closer relations with Taiwan, with some even calling for their governments to openly oppose the “one China” policy.  

Vystrcil’s visit this week is thus a litmus test for other European politicians. If Beijing doesn’t try to punish Vystrcil then other European leaders might be buoyed to make their own travel arrangements to Taipei. However, if it does try and fail, it will show the futility behind what observers see as Beijing’s new “coercive diplomacy.”