LONDON - A bitter dispute between China and the Czech Republic threatens to affect relations between Europe and Beijing.
A delegation from the Czech Senate has visited Taiwan, which China claims as part of its territory. A strongly worded threat from Beijing against the head of the delegation prompted criticism from European Union leaders.
The dispute comes as Europe has hardened its language toward Beijing on a range of disagreements in recent months, from the crackdown on pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong to China’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
Speaking Tuesday in the Taiwanese parliament, the president of the Czech Senate, Milos Vystrcil, called for democracies to safeguard their way of life. In Czech and Mandarin, he said, “I am Taiwanese,” echoing the famous speech by John F. Kennedy on a visit to divided Berlin in 1963. Vystrcil’s address drew a standing ovation from Czech lawmakers.
Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, said Thursday that she hoped the Czech visit would strengthen ties with Europe.
“Our actions are telling friends in Europe and all over the world, whether Taiwanese or Czechs, we will not succumb to oppression, we will bravely speak up, actively participate in international affairs and contribute with our capabilities,” she said.
Beijing has reacted with fury. Hua Chunying, a spokesperson for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told reporters that Beijing "hopes that the Czech side will recognize the serious damage caused by the Senate president's actions to Sino-Czech relations. Their actions will not change in the slightest the fact that Taiwan is an inalienable part of Chinese territory.”
Touring European capitals this week, China’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, warned that the Czech Senate president would “pay a heavy price.” That drew widespread European condemnation, and the Czech government summoned the Chinese ambassador.
China’s diplomatic approach could backfire, said professor Steve Tsang, director of the School of Oriental and African Studies’ China Institute at the University of London.
“We are seeing a Chinese government which is much more assertive if not outright aggressive in its approach, and that is changing opinions in Europe,” Tsang told VOA.
The Czech population is especially sensitive to threats from a foreign power, said China analyst Filip Jirous of the Prague-based analyst group Sinopsis.
“It’s sort of part of the Czech historical narrative that it was always, like, this foreign power that was sort of dictating what we do,” Jirous told VOA. “Obviously there was Germany, or it was Russia in the past, and now you have China as this big country that tells us, ‘You can’t go to Taiwan.' "
Just a few years ago, relations between Beijing and Prague were among the strongest in Europe. In 2015, the Czech Republic welcomed a visit from Chinese President Xi Jinping, with a pledge the country would become the gateway for Chinese investment in Europe — in President Milos Zeman’s words, “an unsinkable aircraft carrier of Chinese investment expansion.”
It didn’t work out as planned, said Jirous. “The economic side of things that were promised never came, and in the end, I would say lots of people below the top tier of politics sort of felt uncomfortable with what was happening here.”
Czech public opinion has since swung against China, fueled by a series of financial scandals, including secret payments made by the Chinese government to staff at Prague's Charles University in return for favorable coverage and contacts.
Europe as a whole also is hardening its language toward Beijing. In a recent newspaper article, the EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, described China as a “new empire” that was “undermining international norms.”
“Russia, China and Turkey share three common characteristics: They are sovereigntists on the outside and authoritarian on the inside,” Borrell wrote in an article in newspaper Le Journal de Dimanche.
In another article for the journal Politica Exterior, Borell wrote: “[China’s] objective is the transformation of the international order toward a selective multilateral system with Chinese characteristics, in which economic and social rights are prioritized over political and civil rights.”
Tsang said there is a general hardening of attitudes within the EU. “And that hardening is primarily a response to the ‘wolf warrior’ diplomacy of China, whether it is pitched against the COVID-19 crisis or because of events in Hong Kong, or in Xinjiang, or Tibet, or the Sino-Indian borders and South China Sea.”
Xi is expected to attend a summit hosted by EU leaders and German Chancellor Angela Merkel this month.
Embroiled in a bitter trade war with the United States, analysts say, China is reluctant to sour relations with Europe. Taiwanese independence touches the rawest of nerves in Beijing, however, and there could yet be further fallout from the visit by the Czech delegation.