WASHINGTON - U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s warm reception in Prague last week reflects welcomed U.S. investment in the country and shared democratic values. Shortcomings in both areas, meanwhile, are seen as contributing to the decline of a once-promising relationship between Prague and Beijing.
Just a few years ago, relations between Beijing and Prague were full of promises, marked by frequent visits by heads of state to each other’s capitals. When Xi Jinping arrived in Prague in March 2016, he was a given a 21-gun salute and an elaborate welcome.
At the height of relations between the two governments, Ye Jianming, the head of China’s investment operations in Prague, had an office in the Czech presidential office compound. But the relationship soured when Ye left the country amid a high-profile international scandal, leaving Czech companies claiming he owed them huge sums.
Last week, speaking alongside Pompeo, Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis complained the Chinese have “not invested in the Czech Republic in the way I would imagine they should.”
By contrast, he said, “there are something like 2,500 U.S. investors here in the Czech Republic who gave jobs to more than 55,000 people.”
Hynek Kmonicek, the Czech Ambassador in Washington, expanded on Czech frustrations with China in written replies to questions from VOA.
“Chinese investments in the Czech Republic currently are not significant, yet much talked about,” Kmonicek wrote. “Screening of investment for the future is a topic, and there we work closely with our U.S. allies.”
Kmonicek said the Czech Republic and the U.S. both value “the principles of democracy and human rights,” which he called “one of the pillars” of his country’s foreign policy. The legacy of Vaclav Havel, the dissident who led the anti-communist movement and became the country’s first popularly elected president, remains “vital” when it comes to the Czech Republic’s “self-definition,” the ambassador said.
The sentiment was emphasized at Pompeo’s joint press conference with Babis, who expressed shock over developments in nearby Belarus, where protesters have flooded the streets for days over what they see as a fraudulent reelection of longtime President Alexander Lukashenko.
“I could not imagine that something like that could happen in Europe, so close to us,” the prime minister said. He called on the European Union to take concrete measures to help ensure that “the [Belarusians] have the same right to be free as we have.”
China, in contrast, appears to be backing the man sometimes described as Europe’s last dictator. What appeared to be images of the protests on state-run China Central Television this week were described as an outpouring of support for Lukashenko.
The incident caused an outrage on Chinese-language social media. A popular commentator posted the CCTV clip on Twitter, describing her reaction as “speechless.”
这这这....— 冰玉IceJade (@bingyuicejade) August 17, 2020
The Communist Party-controlled Global Times, meanwhile, lamented that Europeans have made China an outcast in spite of what it has done for the continent. The author urged countries in Europe to refuse to be the America’s “diplomatic pawn and strategic vassal.”
Asked to comment on the notion that the U.S. is using the Czechs to advance its own goals, Kmonicek said “the only statement of that sort we have noticed came from the chairman of the Czech Communist Party.”
The people of then-Czechoslovakia swept the communists from power 30 years ago as the Soviet empire unraveled. The communist party still existing in the country occupies no seat in the Czech senate and their numbers in the lower house of parliament have shrunk in recent years.