The Czech Republic is in the process of revising its policy towards China under the reign of a center-right government. As the country is still a part of the 14+1 format, the issue of continued participation in the platform is naturally part of the review. In spite of that, no (public) assessment of Czech participation in the platform since its inception in 2012 has been conducted. Did the Czech Republic gain anything at all from its engagement with China under this format?
This article is part of a series of articles authored by young, aspiring China scholars under the Future CHOICE initiative.
In June 2023, the Czech government approved a new Security Strategy which – in contrast with the latest iteration from 2015 – directly mentions China and frames the country as a “challenger to international order.” This is one of the signals of a changing political landscape that increasingly acknowledges China as a systemic challenge. Furthermore, the revision of the Czech foreign policy towards China has been accelerated by the election of Petr Pavel, former NATO Military Committee chairman, who made headlines with his stance on China and by accepting the call from Taiwan’s President, Tsai Ing-wen, soon after his election. According to Pavel, “China and its regime is not a friendly country at this moment, for the Czech Republic,” an assessment that is largely shared by the government.
However, there remains a lingering concern regarding the Czech involvement in the 14+1 format, a platform for cooperation between China and Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries, casting a shadow over the evolving Czech foreign policy positioning. The relevance of the issue has only been confirmed by a recent visit of Czech Foreign Minister, Jan Lipavský, to Washington where he ‘reassured’ the US counterparts about the Czech inactivity in the platform.
An Economic Love-Hate Relationship
The platform, which was supposed to foster economic cooperation between the CEE countries and China, first met in 2012 in Warsaw. Since then, various Chinese and CEE cities have hosted a number of different forums, conferences, and dialogues connected to the initiative. The 14+1, as the platform is informally known today, meets or at least used to meet once a year at a high-level summit, usually with representation by the head of state or a high-ranking member of the government. Although the 14+1 cannot be considered an international organization, but rather a loose network of bilateral engagements, there is still an element of multilateral cooperation present.
At the height of its popularity, the platform brought together 17 states from the Baltics, Central Europe, and the Balkans. This included EU members but also those still in the process of integration, namely Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and North Macedonia.
Prague was initially enthusiastic about the idea of closer cooperation with China, especially under the Social Democrats-led government and President Miloš Zeman. The participation in the then-16+1 was a part of the larger puzzle of engagement with Beijing. However, bilateral cooperation, which has reached its apex between 2014-2018, has since gone south, with almost no planned projects completed. Meanwhile, the Czech political scene has changed dramatically, with China no longer seen as an opportunity, but as a threat. After Lithuania left the format in 2021 with Lithuania’s Foreign Minister, Gabrielius Landsbergis, citing the divisiveness of the platform as the main reason, Latvia and Estonia soon followed, saying that the membership was “no longer in line with strategic objectives in the current international environment.”
In 2020, even President Zeman himself expressed dissatisfaction with the non-existent investments and initially planned not to attend the annual summit of the then-17+1: “I do not think the Chinese side has delivered what they promised. I’m talking about investment. And that implies that the fact that an important political figure is going to go there, but not the president, is a kind of signal.” In the end, however, Zeman attended the online summit of the platform hosted by China’s Xi Jinping.
Following the Baltic states’ departure from the platform, the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Czech Chamber of Deputies urged the Czech Foreign Ministry to quit the platform. The Foreign Ministry at that time said that the Czech government was considering “all the options.” No decision has been made so far, but Czech participation will be one of the issues included in the long-awaited document on the review of ties with China set to be published by the government.
Meanwhile, Czech diplomats are staying away from participating in any events related to the format, while also being shunned by the Chinese side because of the assertive moves by Czech politicians, especially on the issue of Taiwan.
What are the Ministries Saying about the 14+1?
When inquired about their involvement in the format by the author, Czech ministries have reported varying degrees of cooperation with China. While the Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Internal Affairs, or Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs have no official cooperation with China under the auspices of the 14+1, other ministries have had an extensive array of initiatives in which they – at least initially – actively engaged. The Ministry of Health or Ministry of Regional Development stand out in the number of initiatives and number of events they participated in under the platform.
The Ministry of Health participated in a variety of China-CEE formats as the Czech Republic once sought to take a lead in health-related cooperation under the format; however, the cooperation did not turn out to be fruitful as the Ministry itself claimed that “there has been no practical implementation of any of the cooperation projects.” Perhaps the most important highlight of the cooperation should have been the China-CEEC Drug Regulatory Summit that the Czech Republic hosted in 2018. However, only the director of the State Institute for Drug Control and the deputy minister of health participated and it was the last event under the format with the involvement of the Ministry. Since then, the cooperation has waned and the last offer from the Chinese side to participate in China-CEEC Alliance for Public Health Collaboration – an upgrade to the Public Health Cooperation Network – was turned down in 2021 at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. At the time, such an engagement could have been politically problematic on the domestic stage due to various China-connected scandals, not the least in relation to the controversy over the acquisition of a large number of personal protective equipment from China for inflated prices.
In the field of education, the Chinese government extended 322 scholarship offers to Czech students. Nonetheless, institutional cooperation has been less productive. The Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports has had only one channel for communication within the 14+1 – China-CEE Countries Education Policy Dialogue. Although a long-term cooperation, it has never been a priority for the Czech side, as out of six annual meetings only one of them was attended by the Minister of Education herself and as the Ministry commented, the participation mostly consisted of expert contributions.
The Ministry of Environment was a ‘latecomer’ to the platform, with the first event taking place in 2018 and the latest one in February 2022. Interestingly, a contribution of the Czech Ambassador to China was scheduled during the latter – China-CEEC Ministerial Conference on Environmental Cooperation. However, the Czech Foreign Ministry ultimately advised against a speech by the ambassador, due to “the situation regarding Xinjiang and China’s reaction to the war in Ukraine,” possibly fearing public backlash.
While outside of the ministries’ purview, local cooperation with China has also seen significant development under the platform, with many Czech regions and cities establishing links with Chinese subnational entities. However, cooperation has also been mostly frozen in this field, with at least six partnerships canceled in recent years due to political reasons and also limited results.
The Ministry of Regional Development has had the longest-lasting cooperation with its Chinese counterpart with the last event taking place in 2022. The Ministry had under its auspices the number 10 of China’s Twelve Measures for Promoting Friendly Cooperation with CEE countries, the tourism promotion alliance between China and the CEE countries.
Seemingly, tourism and hospitality have seen the largest impact in terms of cooperation with China, as the number of Chinese tourists has been steadily rising until 2019, partly due to the increasing number of direct flights between the two countries. However, all the flights have since been canceled (mostly due to the pandemic), with no announcement about their reopening. The Czech Republic also remains outside of the list of countries where China renewed permissions for group travel after its reopening, significantly limiting the number of Chinese tourists.
A Long-Awaited Czexit
One common feature across the evaluation of the 14+1 by the Czech ministries is the consensus on the “uselessness” of the format. All ministries that have had any sort of cooperation with China stressed that the cooperation has not stood up to expectations and almost no projects have been implemented.
As the responses from the Czech ministries have shown, the Czech Republic has mostly been a passive ‘visitor’ to the platform, not losing and not gaining anything, both due to unfulfilled promises but also decreasing political interest in cooperation with Beijing. While boosting bilateral cooperation was the main goal of the platform, it eventually seemed to achieve the opposite.
At the same time, the lackluster performance of the format has cast doubt on the seriousness of Chinese interest in the CEE region, only enhanced by China’s support for Russian strategic interests in the region. Thus, the exit of the Czech Republic from the platform remains a question of when, not if.