Certainly not good news. As Prague takes the baton from Paris next week, it will use its six-months Presidency of the Council of the EU to focus on responding to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, reinforcing democratic values, and expanding EU coordination with NATO. While adjusting the EU’s China policy is not going to top the Czech agenda, the afore-mentioned priorities will have a secondary impact on EU-China relations, hindering prospects for stabilization.
Prague may also choose to expand on its bilateral experience and lobby for further expansion of EU-Taiwan relations. In the sensitive period of a run up to the Chinese Communist Party Congress this fall and of increased uneasiness about growing US and EU presence in the Indo-Pacific, Beijing has been increasingly bullish about the status of Taiwan and may try to undermine such efforts.
A few years ago Czech-China relations were flourishing under the patronage of Czech President Miloš Zeman, but Beijing’s unfulfilled economic promises, scandals surrounding the President’s links to China and the opposition’s re-focus on the democratic legacy of Václav Havel (the first president of the Czech Republic) changed the dynamic between the two sides. The new center-right coalition government, formed under Prime Minister Petr Fiala at the end of last year, has been drifting further apart from China while expanding links with Taiwan. As in several other Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries, Prague’s outlook on China was affected by Beijing’s tacit support for Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.
A mid-April visit to Prague by China’s Special Envoy for CEE and former Ambassador to Czechia, Huo Yuzhen, seems to have achieved little effect in reverting the downward trend in Sino-Czech relations. Less than a month after Huo’s visit, the Czech Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee unanimously urged the government to limit its activities in the 16+1 framework, potentially abandoning it altogether. The Minister of Foreign Affairs Jan Lipavský tacitly endorsed the idea of limiting engagement with Beijing by stating that economic promises of the 16+1 framework remain unfulfilled “even after 10 years” and by his actions of personally opening an exhibition of dissident artist Badiucao in Prague.
In parallel, Czechia-Taiwan relations have been expanding. Building on the visits last October of Taiwan’s Foreign Minister Joseph Wu and Taiwanese trade delegations, in April Taipei announced the creation of a USD 200 million Central and Eastern Europe Investment Fund that will focus on projects in Czechia, Lithuania and Slovakia.
Put briefly, it seems unlikely for Beijing to find favorable sentiment from the Czech Presidency.
Presidency agenda and China
China does not top the Czech Presidency’s priorities list. Understandably, Russia takes this spot: the Presidency will focus on supporting Kiev, managing the refugee crisis, ensuring the EU’s energy security, strengthening the bloc’s defensive capabilities as well as economic and democratic resilience.
Still, as shown by the last EU-China Summit, Russia-focused priorities can impact EU-China relations. Under the Presidency of a strongly Kiev-sympathetic Prague, the EU will be keenly monitoring the depth of Beijing-Moscow coordination in the coming months. Any tighter coordination may bolster the Presidency’s lobbying for stronger alignment on China.
Similarly, the increased emphasis on democratic values captured in the Presidency’s motto “Europe as a Task: Rethink, Rebuild, Repower” — a reference to a work by Václav Havel under the same title is not in Beijing’s interest. It could be a prompt for expanding links with a democratic Taipei or impact the course of the EU’s debates about the geopolitical outlook, potentially strengthening support for the “democracies vs. autocracies” framing.
Taking on the responsibility of the chair of the Council meetings, Prague will be in position to frame the discussions on relations with China and may seek to prevent a potential return to business-as-usual mentality held among some other member states. Just how unfavorable this turns out to be for Beijing will largely depend on the level of its support for Moscow.