Czech-China love affair hits the rocks

Relations are souring as the country’s government and president pursue diverging foreign policies.

Czech pres China pres - reuters
Czech President Milos Zeman, left, and China's President Xi Jinping have enjoyed close relations in the past [Jason Lee/Reuters]

Prague, Czech Republic – A senior Czech official this week has warned China that it must respect the central European country’s sovereignty.

Jaroslav Kubera, chairman of the Senate, lambasted Chinese Ambassador Zhang Jianmin, deepening a breakdown of relations that saw a sister city agreement between Prague and Beijing collapse this month.

With more than a billion euros recently invested in the country, the tensions threaten Czech interests, China warns. But some here see the shoe on the other foot.

Relations have soured further since Zdenek Hrib was elected Prague mayor in November 2018. The city chief has welcomed Taiwanese and Tibetan delegations and rejected Beijing’s demand that he respect the “One China” policy.

The resulting Chinese fury has seen visiting Czech concert performances cancelled as cultural diplomacy has crumbled between the two. The Czech culture minister straight-out called Jianmin a liar.

China’s approach to centralised power has only made things worse. Noting efforts to pressure the national government, Czech Foreign Minister Tomas Petricek stated that he had no authority to issue orders to an elected mayor.

Foreign policy fight

The spat has revived public anger in the Czech Republic over perceived subservience to China; what was seen as the grovelling tone of a 2016 letter to Beijing following a visit by the Dalai Lama provoked widespread ridicule, which is enjoying a minor renaissance.

That missive was sent during a campaign by President Milos Zeman to create close ties with China and Russia, despite Czech membership of the EU and NATO.

The populist is widely viewed as promoting his own alternative foreign policy, operating outside that of the government. The president even blasted his own country’s security services for warning of Chinese and Russian espionage.

Although Prime Minister Andrej Babis is no fan of China, his political dependency on Zeman makes him unwilling to block the president’s manoeuvring.

That has now prompted local politicians and city officials to step in, claims a senior official from one opposition party who spoke on condition of anonymity.

We support pragmatic relations with China, but not at the expense of dignity, human rights, and Czech servitude

by Jakub Michalek, The Pirate Party

Prague’s Hrib is not the only municipal head to have fought an eastern giant in recent months. An order by the mayor of Prague 6, the capital’s largest municipal district, to move a Soviet army statue has infuriated Moscow, incurring threats of economic sanctions.

“Nobody declares it, but this is a deliberate effort to block Zeman’s alternative foreign policy,” the opposition figure told Al Jazeera. “We have the differing foreign policy stances of the government and president. Now mayors in Prague are introducing another.”

Hrib’s Pirate Party, the strongest opposition force in the country, sees itself as a leading advocate of the Czech Republic’s Western orientation. Jakub Michalek, leader of the party’s parliamentary grouping, says it seeks to reassert the humanitarian foreign policy established by Vaclav Havel, the late president and dissident playwright.

“We support pragmatic relations with China, but not at the expense of dignity, human rights, and Czech servitude,” he told Al Jazeera. “The actions by city officials can serve as a sign to international partners.”

The abandonment of Havel’s policy came, he suggests, as oligarchs close to Zeman became more dependent on the Russian and Chinese markets.


Falling out of favour? 

Political and public support for Hrib is also helped by the fact Zeman’s promises of large-scale Chinese investment have failed to amount to much.

Inflows remain small. Few new jobs have been created. CEFC, the main Chinese player in the country, was dismantled by Beijing when it fell out of favour in 2018, with its investments taken over by state fund Citic.

Zeman admits investment is below expectation, but he’s also keen to support China’s threats, suggesting funding could be pulled from their most successful investment: the rescue of football giant Slavia Prague.

Yet the recent bombastic reactions from the East have weakened the president’s position, argue some, and China and Russia’s chances of sealing a major role in Czech plans to build new nuclear power capacity, – which could cost over 40 billion euros ($44bn) – are now likely to fall, suggests Krzysztof Dębiec at the Centre for Eastern Studies in Warsaw.

The deterioration of relations may also be a blow to China’s strategy to use Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) as a backdoor to EU markets further west.

Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative to link global markets is as much a bid for political influence as an economic development plan, claim critics, and the furious reaction to Czech declarations of sovereignty may be instructive for some other governments chasing the dangled investment and credit.

“China’s plans are megalomania, as we used to see during Communist times here,” states Michalek. “We don’t expect any practical effect on them therefore, but it’s certainly symbolic.”

Source: Al Jazeera