What will the Czech Republic’s EU Presidency Mean for China?
This article was originally published at 9DashLine and republished here with permission.
In July, the Czech Republic takes over the reins of the EU presidency from France. Ukraine will most likely dominate the agenda and China, as such, is not planned to be one of the key issues for the presidency. However, Prague is still set up to offer new impulses on the bloc’s China policy, especially within the larger framework of the Indo-Pacific.
When the new coalition government of center and center-right parties were voted in late last year in Prague, there were high expectations of a promised “revision” to the strategic partnership with Beijing, which was already becoming a misnomer. Ties with China were virtually frozen under the previous government of populist Prime Minister Andrej Babiš due to a mix of unmet economic expectations, tensions over Taiwan and human rights, and a series of political scandals. The new government with a more assertive and principled policy echoes the legacy of the first Czechoslovak President, Václav Havel.
Cautious First Steps
Yet, at the start, the new Czech government assumed a more cautious approach. On the issue of the Beijing Winter Olympics, the government did not succeed in coordinating a boycott with the pro-China President Miloš Zeman, who personally tasked the Czech ambassador in Beijing, Vladimír Tomšík, to support the Games, despite the wishes of Foreign Minister Jan Lipavský. No sudden change was announced to the policy on Taiwan either, making it clear that the Czech Republic will not rush to replicate Lithuania’s example, including on a possible exit from the 16+1 format, a China-led minilateral with Central and Eastern European states. To some extent, the cautious approach can be explained by the unwillingness of the governing coalition to get into a conflict with President Zeman. Moreover, the outbreak of the war in Ukraine has preoccupied Czech foreign policy, straining its already limited resources.
Yet, there are signs that the government is becoming more confident in its approach. Recently, Lipavský publicly met with the leader of the Tibetan government in exile, and also with Taiwan‘s de facto ambassador to Prague to express gratitude for Taiwan’s assistance to the country in managing the inflow of Ukrainian refugees. Quite clearly, this step is creating a new precedent for official contact with Taiwanese representatives. In yet another move that angered Beijing, Lipavský opened the exhibition of the Chinese dissident artist Badiucao in Prague, commending his work for, among others, highlighting the Chinese state’s oppression of Uyghurs.
Most recently, the Czech Chamber of Deputies’ Foreign Affairs Committee passed a resolution calling for the country to withdraw from the 16+1 format, with the foreign ministry agreeing with the assessment that it had brought virtually no benefit to the country over its decade of existence. It now seems that Czechia is set to leave 16+1 after all, although the exact timing and form of the decision remains to be seen.
But more broadly, rather than addressing ties with China separately, the Czech Republic is subsuming them under the larger framework of its approach towards the Indo-Pacific. Already under the previous government in September last year, the Czech foreign ministry appointed veteran diplomat Libor Sečka (who served as an ambassador to China between 2009 and 2015) as a special envoy for the Indo-Pacific. Moreover, the Czech Republic started devising its own Indo-Pacific strategy, coming on the heels of the EU-level strategy document announced last year and the national strategies of France, Germany, and the Netherlands.
While Czech officials are the first to note that, as a landlocked country, its interest in the Indo-Pacific might be surprising, Prague is aiming to find its own niche. Thus, under the EU presidency, it is, for example, planning to focus on the issues of cybersecurity, where it has gained significant clout — for example, in its quest for developing safe 5G networks, under the Prague Proposals. A major task for the Czech presidency will lie in strengthening ties with the EU’s Indo-Pacific partners, particularly in the field of trade, where the Czech Republic wants to push forward deals with Australia, Indonesia, and New Zealand. Prague will also be able to leverage its good relationship with Washington to smooth out coordination between the EU and the US in the region.
In line with the EU’s strategy, the Czech Republic’s Indo-Pacific approach will strive to be open and inclusive, including towards cooperation with China, especially on the issue of climate change. However, China will be the elephant in the room in many of the discussions, including on the issue of strengthening the resilience of global supply chains in cooperation with “like-minded partners”. In the end, a diversification of ties with other key partners in the Indo-Pacific region, including Japan, South Korea, India, or ASEAN, may be one of the lasting legacies of its EU presidency, and for Czech foreign policy.
An open question is whether the Czech Republic will push for closer EU ties with Taiwan. Rumors abound that there is interest in jumpstarting a bilateral investment agreement between the EU and the island. However, in the current situation, there is barely enough political capital to be spent on the negotiations which the EU Commission has expressed little interest in.
Lessons of Ukraine
The Czech Republic has been one of the most resolute supporters of Ukraine during the war with Russia, including through arms deliveries. The Ukraine agenda is bound to dominate its EU presidency, with Prague hoping to put forward initiatives on the country’s reconstruction. Yet, the indirect lessons of the Russian invasion for ties with China will also stand in the background of the Czech presidency.
On the bilateral level, the Czech foreign ministry recently communicated clearly to Chinese diplomats, including the visiting Chinese Central and Eastern Europe envoy, Huo Yuzhen, that the Czech Republic is closely following China’s stance on the Ukraine war and its ties with Russia. Lipavský also noted that if China decides to support Russia more forcefully, the Czech Republic will have tools available to influence the EU’s approach towards China under its presidency.
There is no doubt that the EU’s ties with China have been seriously shaken by China’s “pro-Russian neutrality” on Ukraine, as the April summit showed. Calls to reconsider strategic dependencies not just on Russia but also on China are getting more urgent. The Czech Republic is undoubtedly one of the EU countries that is the most receptive to seeing Russia and China as two sides of the same authoritarian challenge. Here, it sees eye-to-eye with Lithuania. Prague is likely to advocate for Lithuania to receive more support from the EU in its dispute with Beijing. However, the uneasy fight over the energy embargo on Russia is showing how politically difficult would any action be against China, where trade and investment links far exceed those with Russia.
Yet, in general, the Czech Republic is not likely to present an ambitious agenda for transforming ties with Beijing during its presidency. Due to the limited capacities of the presiding member state, its role is traditionally seen as more of a consensus maker than one forcefully pushing the agenda. However, Prague is set to contribute to the bloc’s already changing China policy with the opportunity to redefine its bilateral approach towards China in the process.
Filip Šebok is a China Research Fellow and Project Manager at the Association for International Affairs (AMO) in Prague, Czech Republic. His research interests include Chinese domestic and foreign policy, relations between China and the Central and Eastern European countries and China’s foreign policy rhetoric.