China is warning of retaliation in response to a visit to Taiwan by a Czech Senate delegation, saying Senate President Milos Vystrcil crossed a “red-line” and violated the one-China principle under which Beijing asserts sovereignty over the island.
As part of the business trip, which ended Friday, Vystrcil delivered a speech in Taiwan’s parliament and met with President Tsai Ing-wen. China said Vystrcil’s visit was an “open provocation,” with Foreign Minister Wang Yi warning that Vystrcil would “pay a heavy price.” The threat led to criticism from European Union leaders. China considers Taiwan a renegade province.
Analysts in the Czech Republic say actions taken by China, if any, may include freezing diplomatic ties with Prague, liquidating China-owned stakes in several Czech companies and restricting Prague-bound Chinese tourists.
They said such action will have a limited impact on the Czech economy given its low dependence on Beijing, yet, may trigger a concerted response from some other European countries. The government in Prague, led by Czech President Miloš Zeman and Prime Minister Andrej Babis, still favors closer ties to China.
Prague Mayor Zdeněk Hřib said he had experience with China’s sanctions last year after Taipei became a sister city to Prague. Beijing, in turn, canceled a tour to China by four Prague-based classical orchestras. Hřib described the sanctions as “laughable and pathetic.”
Hřib later branded China as “a country filled with hatred” and “an unreliable business partner.”
When asked to comment on possible sanctions by China over the visit, the mayor Friday told a media briefing in Taipei that China has broken many of its promises to invest in the Czech Republic and its economic influence in the country remains limited.
Citing Czech analysts, he said China contributed to 1% of the Czech Republic’s GDP, 0.42% of all foreign direct investment and 1.5% of Czech’s exports, the latter of which has been declining since 2017.
Sets an example
Brushing aside any harm sanctions may bring, Hřib said the Senate delegation’s visit to Taiwan set an example for many European countries.
“This time, the delegation is not just from Prague; there are senators whose constituencies [are] from all over the country. And I believe that this visit will also be [an] inspiration for other countries in the EU,” the mayor said.
China enjoyed a trade surplus over the Czech Republic as statistics showed that, in 2019, Chinese imports totaled $26.8 billion, up 3% year-on-year, while Czech exports to China declined 4.5% to $2.5 billion.
Bark worse than bite
Two Czech-based analysts, who spoke to VOA also said China has little leverage in the Czech economy.
“It’s kind of a bluff because China’s afraid of more countries building relations with Taiwan. So, they wanted to just put everybody off,” Jeremy Garlick, assistant professor of international relations at the University of Economics in Prague, told VOA by phone.
“It’s kind of a question — the bark is worse than the bite because I don’t really see what China can really do to the Czech Republic,” he added.
Wang’s verbal threats served two purposes, said Richard Turcsányi, director of the Central European Institute of Asian Studies at Palacky University in the Czech Republic.
“China will apply very harsh rhetoric; we’ve seen that already. [The] Chinese government probably feels that it has to do that for two reasons. One reason is because of domestic nationalist audience. They have to show them that they protect what they see as China’s core interests,” Turcsányi told VOA by phone.
“The other reason is to discourage other countries from travelling to Taiwan,” he added.
China sells shares?
Garlick said China might liquidate its shares in several Czech companies, including a beer brewery, a football club, an airliner and several media outlets; but he said doing so will do little harm to the Czech economy.
Those China-owned stakes were reportedly estimated to be worth $1 billion.
But that was just one-14th of Taiwan’s accumulated investment in the Czech Republic, according to Dalibor Roháč, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.
Turcsányi said China might freeze its diplomatic relations with Prague and cut back on Czech imports as punishment similar to how it had frozen relations with Norway for years and decreased imports of Norwegian salmon, although the Norwegian economy felt little squeezed.
Other sanctions such as the cancellation of direct flights between four Chinese cities and Prague and a ban on Czech-bound Chinese tourists or Czech beer imports will also be symbolic, he said.
The volume of China-Prague direct flights has lost momentum following the coronavirus pandemic and their escalating tensions while Prague has been overcrowded with tourists in the past five years and may soon cap the number of inbound visitors, the researcher added.
At a routine media briefing, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Hua Chunying, Thursday reiterated China’s stance toward the delegation, saying “Vystrcil has openly supported the pro-Taiwan independence forces … But we noticed that the Czech government has drawn a line to distance with him and his behavior doesn’t represent the government’s policy.” Hua called on the Czech government to reverse the delegation’s negative impact.
Both Turcsányi and Garlick, moreover, warned that the delegation’s warm reception in Taiwan and its growing support from countries including Germany, France, Slovak Republic and the U.S., send a warning signal to China.
They say China is becoming unpopular among the Europeans — reasons behind recent visits to Europe by Wang.
“The opinion in Europe is kind of turning against China on the whole. So, the Chinese leverage in Europe is kind of weak at the moment because the general opinion is China is being too aggressive and too assertive,” Garlick said.
Wang’s threats toward the Czech Senate speaker overshadowed his trip aimed at improving relations with European countries, Turcsányi said.
“China needs Europe especially now with the U.S. tensions growing. So, I think the Chinese government will try to balance this kind of need to be tough, and then not to risk undermining the relationship with Europe too much,” he said. The United States and China have been embroiled in a trade dispute and have been at odds over other issues that include Beijing’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak.