Is the best friend of Taiwan in Europe the Czech Republic?

Written by Richard Q. Turcsanyi.

Image credit: 11-12 November Parliamentary sitting by European Parliament/Flickr, license CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Perhaps in the clearest form, the Czech Republic symbolises contradictory attitudes towards Beijing and Taipei found in former Communist countries in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE). While for part of the society Taiwan symbolises own rejection of Communist past and sympathy towards humanistic ideals, others are not willing to endanger promises of benefits (real or imaginary) of pragmatic developing relations with China.

Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) has long been a particular area of contest between Beijing and Taipei. The former European Communist governments belonged among the first states formally recognising the People’s Republic of China after 1 October 1949 and moved on to develop active exchanges with the Mainland during the 1950s. The memory of this “golden era” is still visible in China-CEE relations today and is reflected in the label of “traditional friends,” which Chinese representatives like to use during their meetings with the CEE counterparts as part of the 16+1 process since 2012.

The historical legacy, however, is much more ambivalent, as highlighted by the fact that the CEE officials are rather lukewarm towards perceiving China as a “traditional friend.” Since the 1989 anti-Communist revolutions in Europe, along with successive CEE governments,’ governmental legitimacy has been built on rejecting Communism, inclusive of their pre-1989 past. The latter political arrangement has often been perceived as apparent “occupation.” Thus, from the figurative perspective of Francis Fukuyama, China and the post-Communist CEE countries have found each other on the opposite “ends of the history.”

Relations with Taiwan have been a political indicator of regional CEE development, and also China-CEE relations. The Communist governments before 1989 developed relations with their counterparts in Asia – in Beijing, Hanoi, or Pyongyang – while treating the governments in Taipei, Saigon, Seoul, or Tokyo primarily as “imperialist” adversaries. However, it is good to also keep in mind the internal struggles within the Communist bloc, which meant that most of the European Communist countries were in the Soviet camp, and their relations with China were cold during 1960s-mid-1980s.

Newly democratic Taiwan treated the 1989 revolutions in Eastern Europe as a strategic opportunity – and for a good reason. The European post-Communist regimes had anti-Communism in their DNA, and they were naturally drawn towards Asian anti-Communist countries. Besides, the specific international standing of Taiwan increased sympathies for the democratic anti-Communist government struggling against a rising China – a situation similar enough to draw parallels to their own experience with the Soviet Union.

Moreover, the transitioning CEE countries faced stark economic prospects of recession and were desperate to attract foreign aid, assistance, and capital. Anti-Communist Taiwan, with its dynamic “tiger” economy, seemed like a match made in heaven – a sentiment which the Taipei authorities were all too willing to nourish.

Eventually, the strategic reshuffling in Europe did not lead to significant changes regarding diplomatic recognition – except for North Macedonia and (partly) Latvia, who for a brief period experimented with diplomatic exchanges with Taiwan, no other CEE countries changed the basis of diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China.

At the same time, the CEE countries became some of the most active “substantive” partners of Taiwan in Europe and the world. Most of them opened representative offices in Taipei and in their capitals to engage in economic, cultural, and other “non-diplomatic” relations. In effect, the CEE countries have become, relatively speaking, some of the most “daring” European countries in terms of developing relations with Taiwan amidst China’s pressure.

The Czech Republic has long been at the forefront of this development. The revolutionary leader and the first post-Communist president Václav Havel made a name for himself and his country by the warm moves towards exiled Tibetans and Taiwanese authorities, causing much consternation in China. In 1995, Prime Minister Lien Chan visited Prague and met the president and the prime minister (while on the way stopping in Austria and Hungary, without being granted an official meeting, however), making it the highest level visit of a Taiwanese official in Europe since 1949. This was followed by another trip of the former President Lee Teng-hui in 2000 (after stepping down from the office). In 1995 President Havel also made an unprecedented call in the UN for Taiwan’s inclusion and acceptance of the reality of “two China’s.” The Czech representations repeated this call a few times in the UN.

Economic relations between the Czech Republic and Taiwan have developed rapidly, although not entirely in parallel with political relations. In general, the CEE countries constitute an important host of Taiwanese investments in Europe, overtaking both Southern and Northern Europe, and coming close to those in Western Europe. Taiwanese FDI are primarily focused on the Visegrad countries where they match or overcome those from Mainland China. The Czech Republic actually belongs among the EU countries with the most Taiwanese investments in absolute terms, yet most of it arrived in the period prior to or after the EU accession. This shows that while the political gestures played their roles, it was the economic logic which finally made the investments a reality.

However, it might seem counterintuitive to claim that the Czech Republic would be Taiwan’s best friend in Europe. At the end of the day, the Czech President Zeman famously called his country “China’s unsinkable aircraft carrier in Europe” and the country was only recently spoken of being China’s “bridge to Europe”. At the same time, it filled international newspapers with the stories about allegedly growing “Chinese influence” buying up the country “one business deal at a time.”

The difference between Havel and Zeman is often explained by a simple reference to the Communist legacy, but the division between the two political positions goes much further and can be found in 19th-century discussions about the Czech identity. The idealistic position believes that the Czech nation represents the highest moral ground, while the pragmatic one holds more sceptical views. This division has long been a feature of Czech politics right up to the present, and in the post-Communist reality, China has become an easy indicator of one’s position on the axis between humanistic idealists and pragmatic realists. Attitudes towards Taiwan – similarly as Tibet – serve as a symbolic gesture to communicate easily where one stands.

While they say, “the truth is found in the middle,” the Czech case of positioning between China and Taiwan gives a different answer. The actual policy attitude does not seem to balance diverse positions within Czech political camps. Instead, it ostensibly shifts between the extremes depending on which of the two political camps is in power at a given time. This is the primary reason why 2013-2016 could be seen as an era when the Czech Republic might really come close to being one of China’s strongest supporters in Europe, while the eras before and after can evince an almost entirely reversed position on Taiwan.

The upcoming visit of the Senate President Miloš Vystrčil to Taiwan in August 2020 fits well within this framework. Occupying one of the top four constitutional positions of the country (aside from the president, prime minister, and speaker of the lower house), Mr Vystrčil represents an idealistic opposition to the remaining three leaders who all favour more pragmatic and realist stances. His visit to Taiwan can be, therefore, seen as an understandable political gesture intended towards a domestic audience, which has already brought much political attention. The resulting waves which his trip will make in China, Taiwan, and beyond are of secondary relevance – either in terms of worsening relations with China or securing further economic and other gains in Taiwan.

To conclude, there indeed may be some politicians in the Czech Republic who would qualify as Taiwan’s best friends in Europe. However, they cannot guarantee that their successors in office would not diverge dramatically from such positions.

Richard Q. Turcsányi is a Senior Researcher at Palacky University Olomouc, he is an Assistant Professor at Mendel University in Brno, and Program Director at the Central European Institute of Asian Studies (CEIAS) in Bratislava. He tweets @RQTurcsanyi

This article is part of special issue on Taiwan-EU relations

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