Czech Foreign Minister Tomáš Petříček Monday pushed back on his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi’s assault over the Czech Senate delegation’s visit to Taipei — signs, observers say, that suggest the tide is turning against China in Europe.
Relations between Prague and Beijing may take another plunge.
While visiting in Slovenia, Petříček tweeted that Wang’s comments toward the delegation were “over the edge,” shortly after the Chinese official warned of “a heavy price” for Czech Senate President Milos Vystrčil to pay, now that he has defied China’s objection to him visiting Taiwan.
Beijing considers Taiwan a renegade province.
“Minister Wang's statements are over the edge. Such strong words do not belong in the relations between the two sovereign countries,” Petříček tweeted, calling on China to pursue “factual, practical cooperation without emotions that do not belong in diplomacy.”
Exchanges of protests
The Czech foreign minister said he had instructed his deputy to summon China’s ambassador in Prague and expressed the Czech ministry’s “fundamental disagreement” with China’s repeated negative words toward the delegation.
Although the Czech government does not support the delegation’s visit to Taiwan, Petříček added that he has demanded an explanation from China and anticipated the delegation’s trip would have a negative impact on its relations with China.
The Czech government, led by Czech President Miloš Zeman and Prime Minister Andrej Babis, still favors closer ties to China.
But while meeting U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo in the Czech Republic in mid-August, Babis complained that the Chinese have not invested in the Czech Republic in the way he would imagine they should.
Pompeo’s warm reception was considered a warning sign to the once-promising relationship between Prague and Beijing.
A heavy price to pay
According to a statement released by China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Monday, Wang described Vystrčil’s trip to Taipei as “an unendurable provocation for which there will be retribution.”
He was quoted as saying “the Chinese government and Chinese people won't take a laissez-faire attitude or sit idly by and will make him pay a heavy price for his short-sighted behavior and political opportunism,” the statement said.
In return, China’s Vice Foreign Minister Qin Gang Monday also summoned the Czech Republic's ambassador in Beijing to tell him that Vystrcil “violated China's sovereignty by openly supporting Taiwan 'independence' and splittist forces.”
Another outcry in Czech
Wang’s threats, part of China’s coercive diplomacy that backfired and failed to stop the Senate delegation’s visit to Taiwan, are expected to provoke another public outcry, said Karel Picha, a Czech who has lived in Taiwan for eight years and currently runs the only Czech cuisine restaurant in Taipei.
“I think most of the Czech people, they will respond negatively to these threats. They are probably not going to be polite,” Picha told VOA.
He said that the wounds from 21 years of occupation by the communist Soviet Union are too fresh to the Czech people, who hate it more than anything else when another communist country threatens them.
Doing the right thing
Vystrčil also responded to Wang’s threat in Taipei by saying that “delegation members made the trip voluntarily, and we believe we are doing the right thing. In the short run, the outcome looks negative. But there will be long-term benefits.”
He said the Czech people know how it feels to be controlled by a big brother who will never relent.
Two analysts who spoke to VOA said China’s repeated bashing of Vystrčil can only result in soured relations, while it is also likely for China to make good on its threat.
“China is too pushy. It turns even more aggressive when other countries or companies have been willing to go along (with its one-China policy),” DPP legislator Lo Chih-cheng told VOA. “But there comes a time when people say, ‘Enough is enough.’
“China has turned into such a bully because for a long time, Western countries have put up with it,” he added, referring to Wang’s threat to punish the Czech Republic.
Lo urges China to realize that any coercive move it plans to take will only backfire and worsen their relations.
Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a political science professor at Hong Kong Baptist University, agreed that China will make the Czech Republic pay. But it remains to be seen how damaging China’s sanctions will be, since the Czech economy isn’t heavily dependent upon China.
He said the Czechs are “courageous” to have made the trip to Taiwan regardless of the Chinese pressure.
“I think it kind of underscores a pushback from a number of countries in Europe which feel much more sympathy with Taiwan, a democratic country, as opposed to authoritarian China,” Cabestan told VOA by phone.
China-Europe relations are on a rocky path, as more European countries have become vocal over the situation in Hong Kong, Xinjiang and the potential flash point in Taiwan or the South China Sea, according to Cabestan.
China’s popularity in Europe has fallen in recent years and will take some time to improve, he said.
Cabestan said Wang was touring Europe because the country’s “wolfish” diplomacy has done harm to its relations with many European countries, and Wang was there to minimize the damage.
A previous version of this story misstated the number of years the Czech Republic, then part of Czechoslovakia, was under Soviet control. VOA regrets the error.