• Eva Strnadová

I am a Taiwanese.

On the 16th August, Miloš Vystrčil, a Czech politician serving as the President of the Senate and Senator from Jihlava district, landed in Taiwan with a 90-member delegation.

The visit's background

Taiwan has transformed itself into a protest against pro-Chinese politics in the Czech domestic debate. The question of a visit to Taiwan has become a proxy battleground for opposing domestic political parties. Moreover, it nurtured the division of Czech society. The pro-Chinese stream, represented by the Czech President Miloš Zeman and the Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš, criticises the visit to Taiwan as an affront to the diplomatic relations with China and its consequent economic costs.

It is vital to remember that the visit to Taiwan was originally planned by Jaroslav Kubera, Vystrčil’s predecessor. To stop the visit, the office of the Czech President has solicited the support of the local Chinese Embassy. A statement clarifying the impact of the visit on Czech-Chinese diplomatic relations was later delivered to Kubera via the president’s office. Under these circumstances, Kubera passed away as a consequence of a heart attack.

The President of the Senate Miloš Vystrčil before leaving for Taiwan.

An Opportunity for Taiwan

Historically, Taiwan belongs to the three Ts taboo subjects in relation with China - the Tiananmen Square massacre, Tibet and Taiwan. Since Taiwan, officially knowns as the Republic of China, has lost its United Nations seat in 1971 as the People’s Republic of China replaced it, most sovereign countries have recognised the latter. As for September 2019, Taiwan has diplomatic relations with 14 UN member states and the Holy See.

Nevertheless, the political status of Taiwan remains a controversy. Despite the non-existence of diplomatic relations between the Czech Republic and Taiwan, Miloš Vystrčil and his delegation met with the top Taiwanese politicians, namely with the Minister of Foreign Affairs Joseph Wu, the Minister of Economic Affair Wang Mei-hua or with the Chairman of the Taiwanese parliament Jou Si-kchun. Fore and foremost, he met with the Taiwanese president Cchaj Jing-wen.

Czech-Chinese Diplomatic Relations

The diplomatic relations between the Czech Republic and China are a long-discussed topic both domestically and abroad. Generally speaking, as a former communist country, pro-Chinese and pro-Russian politics are typically confronted in the Czech Republic by the liberally minded citizens, who remember the heritage of the Velvet Revolution in 1989.

To illustrate, the Dalai Lama visited the Czech Republic in 2008 and 2016. On both occasions, he was welcomed by the top Czech politicians. For instance, in 2008, the attended a meeting with the former president Václav Havel or and the at-that-time Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek.

In 2013 Milos Zeman, a former prime minister, was elected president. Thought the Czech Republic is a parliamentary democracy in which the president’s power is limited and does not set official Czech foreign policy, he actively promoted a friendly relationship with the Chinese President Xi Jinping. Mr. Zeman’s pro-Chinese policy led to benefits for Mr. Zeman’s supporter Petr Kellner in the Chinese market, a five-year sponsorship contract between Huawei and Prague Castle and Chinese investments in the Czech Republic. In 2016, Chinese influence seemed to reach its height with a state visit by Mr. Xi.

Mr Zeman and Xi during the Chinese official visit in Prague in 2016.

According to Pew Research Centre's latest Global Attitudes survey, 57 % of the Czech correspondents have an unfavourable opinion of China. The visit to Taiwan demonstrates a divided Czech foreign policy with China. The foreign policy of the Czech Republic is officially set by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Czech Republic. In support of diplomatic relations with China, the Czech Republic does not officially undermine the ‘one China’ clause.

However, the pro-Chinese stance has been disrupted by opposition political parties and individual politicians. To illustrate, the Minister of Culture Daniel Herman privately met with the Dalai Lama in 2016, which escalated in the Joint Declaration of the Supreme Constitutional Officials of the Czech Republic confirming a long-term policy towards China based ‘on mutual respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the People's Republic of China.’

The visit to Taiwan cannot be understood as an official expression of the Czech foreign policy. Miloš Vystrčil calls it ‘parliamentary diplomacy', a term used by Woodrow Willson. It was supported neither by the President, the Prime Minister not by the Minister of Foreign Affairs. Nevertheless, the Chamber of Deputies voted in support of the visit.

Democratic undertones

In addition, it will benefit our relations with China in the long run - the Chinese have long valued pride, and precisely because our political leadership has shown the exact opposite of pride, China has begun to treat us with incredible arrogance, as if we were its colony. Tomáš Halík

The main objective of the visit to Taiwan is trade and business. The majority of the 90 members of the delegations are businessmen who represent 36 Czech companies. Miloš Vystrčil declared three objectives of his visit to Taiwan - mutual trade and business relations, cooperation in science and technology and culture. Nevertheless, it is hard not to see the democratic value of his visit. Firstly, he and his predecessor Jaroslav Kubera received an award for parliamentary diplomacy in Taiwan.

Miloš Vystrčil has evoked multiple times the legacy of Václav Havel, the first president of the Czech Republic, who called for giving Taiwan a seat in his speech to the UN General Assembly in 1995 and received Taiwan’s former President Lee Teng-hui as well as Prime Minister Lien Chan. This pro-democratic approach has been constantly undermined since 2013, when Miloš Zeman was elected the Czech President and Andrej Babiš became a leading politician.

Most strikingly, the Joint Declaration of the Supreme Constitutional Officials of the Czech Republic was signed by the President, the President of the Senate, the Prime Minister and the Speaker of the Chamber of Deputies of the Czech Republic in 2016. As a reaction to a private meeting of the Minister of Culture with the Dalai Lama, they declared the personal activities of some Czech politicians are not an expression of a change in the official policy of the Czech Republic ‘and that the Czech Republic will’ base its long-term policy towards China ‘on mutual respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the People's Republic of China.’

A Proxy Battle Ground For Domestic Political Parties

The visit to Taiwan reveals the acute division of the Czech citizens, which is consequently mirrored by the competing domestic political parties. Symbolically, the discussion about Taiwan in the Czech Republic has become yet another case of the dispute between the pragmatist and pro-human right strands in the Czech foreign policy. Among businessmen, the politicians who visiter Taiwan has symbolically declared the opposition to the current President and the Prime Minister of the Czech Republic.

The pro-China policy has been frequently criticised and used symbolically in a proxy war of the opposing domestic political parties. To illustrate, The new mayor of Prague Zdeněk Hřib from the Pirates Party refused to sign a sister city agreement with Beijing because of the inclusion of the ‘one China’ clause. Consequently, it was replaced with a treaty with Taipei.

The division between the pro- and anti-Chinese strands was the most obviously expressed during the COVID-19 pandemic. While purchased sanitary supplies were greeted by the Prime Minister at the airport, the governing parties did not support the notion about donated supplies by Taiwan in the parliament. Closely observed, the visit to Taiwan reveals the special position of the Senate in the current domestic political scene.

The specific role of the Senate

Conversely to the Chamber of Deputies, the opposition parties have a majority in the Senate. Senators have become effective critiques of the governing parties, the Prime Minister and the President. If the opposition parties in the Chamber of Deputies are often criticised for not challenging the governing parties, the Senate has been in that sense successful. This is indicated by the leader of the ANO movement Andrej Babiš, now the Prime Minister, who suggested to revoke the Senate in response to the record low turnout in the second round of the Senate elections in 2016, which was only 15.4%.

It is not surprising that the visit to Taiwan was organised by the President of the Senate and joined for example by Pavel Fischer, a Senator from Prague 12 since 2018, and Jiří Růžička, who served as the acting President of the Senate following the death of Jaroslav Kubera. Rather than a support to the elections to the Senate held in October 2020, this visit could be considered as a pragmatic step forward to the 2023 Czech presidential election. Miloš Vystrčil has neither confirmed nor refused his candidature in this election.

The Visit's Impact

As mentioned above, the visit to Taiwan can be understood as an attempt to attract voters for the upcoming elections to the Senate in 2020 and for the 2023 Czech presidential election. On the one hand, China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi called the trip ‘an act of international treachery,’ warning Vystrčil would ‘pay a heavy price.’

The visit to Taiwan caused fear in of economic retaliation for an economy weakened by the pandemics. While the opponents of the visit, for instance, MP Leo Luzar from the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia are ready to highlight the economic dangers of deteriorated relations with China, the Chairman of the Czech-Taiwan Chamber of Commerce Pavel Diviš reminds that Taiwan is a bigger employer and investor in the Czech Republic than China.

Fearing China will announce economic retaliation, Mr. Zeman said Vystrčil will now be excluded from foreign policy briefings. ‘I consider it boyish provocation,’ Mr. Zeman told the Prima broadcaster. According to Jiří Ovčáček, the journey goes directly against the unified foreign policy of the Czech Republic and goes directly against the unified foreign policy of the EU.

On the other hand, The Czech Republic has become a trend-setter in foreign policy.

Even if the visit to Taiwan expressed stronger anti-Chinese sentiment than is supported by the European Union, Chinese threats to the Czech Republic were officially condemned for instance by France, Germany and Slovakia. On his visit to the Czech Republic, Mike Pompeo supported the visit to Taiwan in his speech to the Czech Senators.

In sum, the incoherence of the Czech foreign policy with China demonstrates the two opposing strands - pro-democratic thinking is not easily reconcilable with pro-Russian and pro-Chinese stance.