A visit by the delegation led by the Czech Chamber of Deputies Speaker in Taiwan marks another milestone in the development of bilateral ties and Taiwan’s global engagement, even as it loses official diplomatic allies.
On March 26, Honduras announced that it would establish official relations with the People’s Republic of China, severing more than 80 years of ties with the Republic of China. Taiwan thus lost a ninth diplomatic ally since the current President, Tsai Ing-wen, came to power in 2016, leaving the island state with only 13 sovereign official partners.
However, yet another diplomatic loss to Beijing was partly balanced by the concurrent visit of the largest-ever Czech delegation to the island led by the Czech Speaker of the Chamber of Deputies, Markéta Pekarová Adamová. The 5-day visit that began on March 25 shows that Taiwan will increasingly tap into extensive relations with like-minded countries around the world, ultimately making Beijing’s strategy of diplomatic isolation moot.
The Largest-ever Delegation
The 150-member-strong delegation from Czechia to Taiwan is the largest ever in the history of bilateral relations. The speaker of the parliament is accompanied by six other MPs, including the chairs of the foreign affairs committee and defense committee. The delegation includes representatives of five government parties and one opposition party (ANO), bringing a cross-party element to it. Moreover, directors of the Czech intelligence service and Czech cybersecurity watchdog are also part of the delegation. Finally, the delegation includes the representatives of Czech academic institutions, businesses, local governments, and cultural institutions.
The composition of the delegation speaks to a widespread interest in developing ties with Taiwan on different levels, including economic, political, and people-to-people ties, but also sensitive areas such as security issues. To facilitate contacts for businesses, cultural institutions, and other interested parties, a Czech Hub in Taiwan was officially opened on March 27.
With President Miloš Zeman out of office, the visit has not created similar domestic controversy as the one by Senate President, Miloš Vystrčil, in August 2020, which was openly criticized by Zeman and was not supported by the foreign ministry or the prime minister at the time. Now, the situation is strikingly different, with a consensus on the need to develop ties with Taiwan across the key political actors, leading to a “whole of government approach” to the island.
The new President, Petr Pavel, has been supportive of the development of ties with Taiwan, going as far as to accept the congratulatory call from the Taiwanese president soon after his election. Moreover, Pavel also noted a willingness to meet with the Taiwanese President in some capacity. The President’s office is represented in the delegation by a member of the military affairs department.
Still, there were (cautiously) critical views of the visit expressed by some representatives of the populist ANO party that led the previous government, even if one of their representatives is joining the visit, and outright opposition from the far-right SPD. According to one SPD politician, the visit will “freeze our relations with China” and lead to troubles for the Czech economy.
The attention paid to the trip has been highly unusual, aided, in no small part, by the high-level public promotion of the visit by the speaker herself and others. A special webpage section was even created for the visit on the official page of the Chamber of Deputies called “The Taiwan mission.” While the delegation also stopped in South Korea, this leg of the visit did not enjoy the same high level of political attention.
As the graphic below shows, parliamentary visits to Taiwan from Czechia to Taiwan are quite common, even as they have grown in profile in recent years.
It is clear that the delegation is not a mere business visit, but a symbolic foreign policy action. As has become commonplace in Czech politics, the rationale of the visit, and more broadly, developing ties with Taiwan, is oftentimes presented as a direct challenge and alternative to ties with China. For example, the introduction on the webpage by the speaker notes that [The friendship between Taiwan and Czechia] is based on the values of freedom, democracy, and human rights. This is something that the authoritarians will never understand.”
The Economic Rationale
Apart from the symbolic aspect, the justification for the high-level delegation, and promoting ties with Taiwan as such, is presented as promoting economic cooperation. Again, cooperation with Taiwan is juxtaposed with China. To contrast the disappointing results of the cooperation with China, which was spearheaded by the previous Czech governments, proponents often note that Taiwan is a key economic partner for the country. The official webpage even claims that Taiwan is “a more important” economic partner for Czechia than China.
While the data rings true in terms of the often quoted number of jobs created by the Taiwanese investment in Czechia (24,000 vs 4,000 created by Chinese investments between 1993 and 2020) the overall economic picture is much more complicated. The latest available data for investment for 2021 shows that the overall stock of Chinese investment stood at €480 million, while investment from Taiwan was negative (-€62.5 million). The year before was the only year when the stock of Taiwanese investment stood higher since the data became available in 2014, with €202 million for Taiwan, and €166 million for China. At the same time, the data from the Czech national investment agency gives the data for inward investment from Taiwan and China between 1993 and 2020 as €792 million and €505 million, respectively. With a lot of fluctuation and the lack of the most recent and reliable data, the current picture can also be quite different. Another factor is the nature of the investment, as most of the Chinese investments came to Czechia in the form of acquisitions rather than greenfield projects. The largest Taiwanese investment is that of the electronics contract manufacturer Foxconn, which is the second largest Czech exporter.
As for trade, China is, understandably, a much bigger economic partner for Czechia, occupying second place after Germany. Overall trade with China reached €26.9 billion in 2022, with exports of €1.9 billion and imports of €25 billion. As for Taiwan, the overall trade stood at €1.67 billion, with exports of €300 million and imports of €1.37 billion. This perspective does not take into account the issue of reexports, which further transforms the overall picture of economic linkages. Still, the notion that Taiwan is a more important trade partner sometimes appears in the Czech discourse, for example in a recent interview with President Petr Pavel.
In any case, it is clear that Taiwan is seen as a promising partner beyond the currently existing robust ties, especially in high-tech fields. Similarly to Lithuania, which has also dramatically expanded cooperation with Taiwan, there are expectations that Czechia can develop cooperation with Taiwan in the field of semiconductors. While large-scale investments in the industry that have been touted by some Czech politicians are unlikely, a more practical collaboration involving, for example, scholarships for technological talent may be more tangible and achievable.
The question on the table is whether Taiwan can deliver on some of the outsized expectations. As noted by Taiwan’s de facto ambassador to Czechia, the government in Taiwan cannot order businesses around and guide their investment decisions. The fact that political and economic decisions do not always follow the same logic is evident by the fact that it was Hungary, by no means an enthusiastic political supporter of Taiwan, that attracted the most Taiwanese investment out of the EU countries in 2020. Should the expectations about gains from cooperation with Taiwan not be met, this can also lead to disappointment and loss of domestic political capital for those supporting ties with Taiwan in Czechia. However, it seems that the role of Taiwan as a sort of “value indicator” in domestic politics is unlikely to be affected by economic developments.
How Will China React?
As always, one of the questions underlying the visit to Taiwan is China’s reaction. One might look for answers in China’s reaction to the visit of a delegation led by the Senate President, Miloš Vystrčil, to Taiwan in August 2020. At the time, despite harsh rhetoric, China did not take any tangible countermeasures, except for an odd case of a canceled piano purchase.
Yet, the 2020 trip is not a perfect analogy. At the time, Vystrčil was de facto a representative of the opposition, while Pekarová Adamová is the leader of one of the governing parties. Moreover, while the foreign ministry, the prime minister, and the president at the time of Vystrčil’s visit all distanced themselves from the move, the circumstances are different this time, as all key actors are more or less on the same page regarding developing ties with Taiwan. Therefore, while China could brush off Vystrčil’s visit as a one-off move by an opposition politician not representative of Czech foreign policy, this will not be possible this time.
Still, there are factors that might dissuade China from taking any concrete actions against Czechia, apart from obligatory harsh rhetoric (which also seems rather muted this time so far). Any large-scale reaction might further damage ties with the EU, which China has been trying to mend recently in the context of the concerns about Beijing’s role in aiding Russia in Ukraine. Moreover, replicating the Lithuanian model may not be feasible, due to the larger size of Czechia’s economy, and its ties with Germany which make Czechia a much more politically and economically costly target for China than tiny Lithuania. The question of whether China takes any action thus remains in the open.
Broader Meaning of the Visit
Zooming out from the Czech context, the visit shows that Taiwan has found an opening in developing ties with democratic partners across the world. In this respect, it is increasingly clear that these ties can play a bigger role than the relations with the remaining diplomatic partners, which have often entangled Taiwan in undignified dollar diplomacy and support for questionable regimes. In a way, letting China win in its game of diplomatic isolation can actually free Taiwan’s hands.
Countries in the CEE, chiefly Czechia, Slovakia, and Lithuania, have stood at the forefront of engaging with Taiwan. Still, it is clear that the small CEE countries are not able to play a significant role in geopolitical issues. In this respect, it is important for countries, such as Czechia, to use the channels with Taiwan to also promote the issue on the European agenda so that the EU remains a key voice for maintaining peace in the Taiwan Strait and signals to China that any change to the status quo is not permissible.
At the same time, China also views the status quo on Taiwan as changing, as more and more countries interpret their “One-China” Policy in increasingly flexible ways. From Beijing’s perspective, it may feel pressured to make stronger moves to prevent further “hollowing out” of different countries’ commitment not to develop official ties with Taiwan. The Taiwanese government is also apparently aware of the need to proceed cautiously, as evidenced by the Taiwanese side’s proposal to meet the US Speaker of the House of Representatives, Kevin McCarthy, in California, instead of welcoming him in Taiwan. The arrival of the Czech delegation and the gradual lifting of erstwhile limits on political contacts in other countries thus also marks the new age for Taiwan’s engagement with partners around the world, which will also require careful diplomatic maneuvering on both sides.
Filip Šebok is a China Research Fellow and Project Manager at the Association for International Affairs (AMO) in Prague, Czech Republic. He is also an individual member of the European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats (Hybrid CoE) Expert Pool. His research interests include relations between China and the Central and Eastern European countries and China’s foreign policy rhetoric.