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How Czechia Engages Taiwan

Image Source: 立法院/Wikimedia Commons

While shared values have underpinned the growing Czech-Taiwanese relationship, there is an interest on both sides to prove that the cooperation can also deliver tangible results.

The article was originally published on Taiwan Insight and is republished here with the permission of the author.

While it has been over the past few years that the Czech-Taiwanese relations have grabbed headlines over the world, the two sides’ ties have not come from nowhere. In fact, the recent intensification of cooperation has been built on a very solid foundation jointly forged by the two sides since the early 1990s. Taiwan has become an important investor in the Central European countries already in the 2000s, especially through the investment of electronic manufacturer Foxconn, which has become a major exporter and tax payer in the country.    

However, it cannot be denied that the ties have gained new momentum in the context of the developments of the past few years, with the interests of the two sides coalescing. In Czechia, the efforts by the political establishment around the Social Democratic Party (ČSSD, Česká strana sociálně demokratická), President Miloš Zeman, and business circles to court China since 2013 have ended in abject failure. At the same time, they have created a backlash in the Czech society and opposition that, in some part, also led to more support for engaging Taiwan as a democratic mirror image of China and as a hallmark of returning to the values-based foreign policy which was said to have guided the country before 2013. While their parties were still in opposition, it was Prague Mayor, Zdeněk Hřib, from the Pirates (Piráti) and Senate Speaker, Miloš Vystrčil, from the currently strongest coalition party ODS (Civic Democratic Party, Občanská demokratická strana) who spearheaded engagement with Taiwan. When their parties formed a new government in 2021, which put the improvement of ties with Taiwan in its governance program, the ties with Taiwan further expanded. The testament to this has been the flurry of high-level delegations, the most significant of which was the one led by the Parliament Speaker, Markéta Pekarová Adamová, to the island in March 2023. The delegation notably included the head of the Czech counterintelligence service, demonstrating how the Czech side has not shied away from sensitive areas of cooperation.   

At the same time, Taiwan has been looking to strengthen its ties with non-official partners, as it has faced increased pressure from Beijing. Czechia, Lithuania, and, to some extent, Slovakia have proved to be potential partners in Europe that could help Taiwan offset the loss of diplomatic space. Taiwanese representatives have also skilfully highlighted a link between Russia’s aggression towards Ukraine and China’s arms-rattling in the Taiwanese Strait and elsewhere In the Indo-Pacific, presenting them as two sides of the same challenge to the global order.  

Czechia has become an outlier in the EU in its willingness to engage Taiwan on a political level, with the exception of another small CEE country, Lithuania. However, so far, it seems that the bilateral relations have not seen much spillover in terms of affecting the EU-level policy. For example, the ambition of some Czech policymakers to spearhead the opening of negotiations between the EU and Taiwan on a Bilateral Investment Treaty has fallen on deaf ears in Brussels. Still, the goalposts of the discussion on Taiwan in the EU are moving, with the bloc becoming more explicit in its interest in the maintenance of peace in the Taiwan Strait. The Czech developments and EU-level developments vis a-vis Taiwan are, however, mostly not directly connected and rather proceed along parallel paths.    

Values and Interests     

The shared values between Czechia and Taiwan are always mentioned as the glue that ties the two countries together. Indeed, the Czech historical trauma of losing its priced sovereignty and living in the shadow of the Soviet Union makes the Czechs sympathetic to Taiwan’s defiance of China. Likewise, the two countries’ struggle towards democracy, with both Taiwan and then-Czechoslovakia getting rid of authoritarian governments, even if under very different circumstances, forms an often-mentioned link between the two. Almost no speech on bilateral relations can go without recalling the late President Václav Havel, an icon-like figure in Czech politics who personally championed Taiwan’s cause whilst president in the 1990s. For example, in 1995, Havel met with the visiting Taiwanese Prime Minister, Lien Chan, and he also publicly supported Taiwan’s membership in the UN. 

However, while values are undoubtedly important, there is a shared understanding of the need for the two sides to achieve concrete results. This is important for Taiwan, which needs to highlight that more substantial political support for the island country pays out. But it is also crucial for the Czech side and the representatives of the currently governing parties, especially in the context of the previous experience with economic expectations from China that went largely unfulfilled. Failure to show specific results from the push to improve ties with Taiwan might make the government an easy target for the opposition and might also have politicians reconsider the cost-benefit ratio of their invested political capital.   

The opening of the direct flight between Prague and Taipei in July 2023 has been seen as an example of a deliverable, that has, however, mostly happened due to the political push to showcase the positive development of the bilateral cooperation. However, the real focus of the cooperation, at least on the Czech side, is on using the engagement with Taiwan to level up the Czech economy. Specifically, it relates to the efforts of Czech stakeholders to tap into Taiwan’s leading role in the semiconductor industry.  

Dreaming of Chips 

The engagement of the two sides in the semiconductors sector has been called a “megaproject” of bilateral cooperation and consists of a multipronged approach. A crucial obstacle to Czech ambitions in the field has been the lack of qualified personnel. In response to Czech demand, Taiwan has opened scholarships to Czech (as well as Polish, Slovak and Lithuanian) students and professionals. While there were some concerns about potential brain drain at the onset, these seem to have been overcome. In cooperation between Charles University and National Chengchi University, a Supply Chain Resilience Centre focusing on the geopolitical risks to semiconductor supply chains was set up in November 2023. Moreover, a research and development centre on semiconductors is planned to be set up at the Masaryk University in Brno, Czechia’s second city, some time in early 2024. 

While the cooperation in the semiconductors area is proceeding, the decision of TSMC to choose the neighbouring German federal state of Dresden as a location for its first European foundry has caused some ripples in Czechia. The opposition figures, such as former Prime Minister Babiš, have used the news to attack the government, criticizing it for being unable to secure investment for Czechia, even while politically supporting Taiwan. Still, the main rationale behind these attacks seems to be scoring points in domestic politics rather than a genuine opposition to deepening cooperation with Taiwan.  

The government representatives have responded to this criticism by arguing that a similar major investment was never in the cards and was not even sought after by the government. The argument goes that Czech companies will be able to profit from the investment in Dresden via their integration into supply chains. Indeed, Czechia has innovative companies engaged in, e.g., the manufacturing of electron microscopes that count TSMC among key customers. To what extent the engagement with Taiwan will help in the development of the Czech high-tech industry still remains to be seen.  

Looking Ahead 

One question hovering above the Czech-Taiwanese ties in their current form is that of sustainability. Recently, there have been some signs that the Czech government has been trying to normalize its troubled ties with China, damaged to a large extent because Prague engaged with Taipei. This was evidenced by the November visit of the national security advisor, Tomáš Pojar, to Beijing, where he met with China’s chief diplomat, Wang Yi. The visit, which sparked much debate, was subsequently trailed by speculation of a planned visit by Prime Minister, Petr Fiala, to China in 2024, although these were later dismissed by the government.   

As the Czech government appears to be working towards stabilizing its relationship with Beijing, there seems to be no indication that this will alter its stance towards Taiwan. The news about the ongoing talks between Lithuania and China to restore ambassador-level relations, which have been downgraded after Vilnius allowed Taiwan to set up its representative office in the capital under the name of “Taiwan” rather than Taipei, might be encouraging news for decision-makers in Prague. As China is reportedly not insisting that the name of the office is changed and has already partly lifted its punitive embargo on the Baltic country, this appears to be a concession from the Chinese side and evidence that ties with Taiwan and China can be pursued simultaneously. From a broader perspective, it demonstrates that China is trying to blunt the sharp edges of its policy towards Europe, at least in the short term. 

Still, political factors can impact the future development of the relationship. The potential victory of Kuomintang in Taiwan’s presidential election in January 2024 might result in a new diplomatic relation that will opt for a different kind of engagement with Czechia and other partners, one that is not as directly negatively construed against China. In two years, when Czech citizens go to the polls for parliamentary elections, the currently unpopular ruling parties could face defeat. This shift in power may also lead to a decrease in the country’s robust engagement with Taiwan. However, if history is any guide to the future, no matter the political headwinds, Czech-Taiwanese ties are likely to stay robust across different fields as they have established solid roots over the past decades. On a broader EU level, European countries cannot afford to ignore Taiwan if they seek to play any significant role in global politics and not just be collateral damage to geopolitical developments outside of their control.   

Written by

Filip Šebok


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.