the Czech Republic is at the head of the anti-China group of the EU; Will Germany join?
On his first day in office, the new Prime Minister Fiala sent a message to capitals around the world: “Our country is looking to the West”. The message came in the form of Fiala’s choice for Foreign Minister Jan Lipavsky, a 36-year-old Chinese falcon.
London: “China is an unreliable trading partner that has failed to deliver on its investment promises in the Czech Republic,” Prague mayor Zdenek Hrib said in an interview early last year. His comments came as more and more Eastern European countries, courted by Beijing as a New Silk Road partner, distance themselves from China.
Everything looked so different just five years ago.
President Xi Jinping will have thought the game was ready when he arrived in Prague in May 2016, the first stop on a foreign tour that also took him to Washington for the nuclear security summit. His visit to the Czech Republic, also known as “Czechia” for short, came as part of a wider campaign to deepen China’s relations with countries in central and eastern Europe. A year earlier, China had signed agreements to build a high-speed railroad from Budapest in Hungary to Serbia’s capital, Belgrade, and pledged to invest in ports and industrial parks along coastal areas. from the Adriatic, the Baltic and the Black Seas. Beijing viewed these Central and Eastern European Countries (CEECs) as a window to broader relations with Europe as a whole, in particular under Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). . The countries of Central and Eastern Europe were also crucial links between the Central Asian and Russian sections of the Silk Road economic belt and the final destinations in Western Europe. Many were scrambling to claim a position as China’s “bridge to Europe”, with all the economic benefits that this could bring.
The Czech Republic in particular had made efforts to rapidly strengthen ties with China under the leadership of its president, Milos Zemen who, ignoring the debates in Prague over the wisdom of his approach, had visited Beijing twice in the past. from the previous two years. On one occasion, he was the only sitting Western leader to attend Beijing’s massive military parade to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, two months later by signing a memorandum of understanding with China s ‘committing to cooperate on the Belt and Road.
Zeman’s pro-Chinese stance drew much criticism in Czechia at the time. A former finance minister, Miroslav Kalousek, accused him of “licking authoritarian and nonfree regimes”. In a more diplomatic tweet, Petr Fiala, former Minister of Education, said “we cannot get down on our knees and deny our professed values”. Fiala is now the Czech Prime Minister.
The dramatic parliamentary elections in Czechia last October, which drew an unusually high turnout from young voters keen to oust populist oligarch and Prime Minister Andrej Babis, currently under investigation by Brussels, marked a turning point in Czech politics. From his first day in office, the new Prime Minister Fiala sent a message to capitals around the world: “Our country is looking to the West”. The message came in the form of Fiala’s choice for Foreign Minister Jan Lipavsky, a 36-year-old Chinese hawk, Russian critic and staunch supporter of the EU and NATO. During the election campaign, Lipavsky specifically described China and Russia as a “threat to the Czech Republic”, arguing that his country had given up some of its principles in recent negotiations with Beijing and Moscow. Months earlier, Lipavsky was one of the politicians responsible for excluding China and Russia from tenders for contracts to build reactors at a Czech nuclear power plant. He also favors deepening ties with Taiwan, calling it “the Czech Republic’s” important economic partner much more important than the People’s Republic of China. ” A statement unlikely to endear him in Beijing.
Strikingly, Lipavsky has been cold towards deepening relations with the other countries of Visegrad – Hungary, Poland and Slovakia, an opinion which will be music to Brussels’ ears, annoyed by the questioning of Budapest. and Warsaw for the supremacy of EU law over national law. It will also send a strong message to voters in Hungary, where parliamentary elections are taking place next April and strongly pro-Chinese Prime Minister Victor Orban is threatened by a coalition of parties determined to impeach him. Orban has been China’s most trusted European ally, and his departure will increase the chances of success of the EU’s new Global Gateway Strategy, unveiled on December 1. Billed as a potential European response to China’s BRI, Brussels says the EU’s new strategy, worth up to € 300 billion, is designed to increase investment promoting democratic values, high standards and good governance. The new strategy also clearly represents a hardening of views on China.
With the largest population and economy in Europe, Germany is key to the success of the EU’s Global Gateway Strategy and EU foreign policy. Last year, Germany was again China’s most important trading partner, with a trade volume of over 212 billion euros, but today German companies are feeling badly about it. comfortable with China. For decades, German industry, a forerunner in the Chinese market, has turned a blind eye to Beijing’s human rights abuses, while managers and engineers have helped make the country the country’s largest trading partner. ‘Germany. But as Xi Jinping bolsters the country’s surveillance state, threatens its neighbors, and takes on an increasingly bellicose tone with the West, Germany’s Chinese strategy, designed to meet the needs of its export industry , seems more and more unsustainable. For many years, German leaders and politicians have peddled the idea of ”transformation through trade” as a mechanism to transform the Asian juggernaut into a Western-style democracy. But today, even China’s biggest defenders in Germany don’t continue to pretend. Major German industry players are now joining prominent politicians in calling for a fundamental overhaul of the country’s approach to China and other autocratic states.
But that leaves German companies more exposed to China than any of its European peers, faced with an impossible choice between preserving a crucial trading relationship and upholding the liberal ideals that Germany holds dear. One in four German jobs depends on exports, and much of this trade is done with autocratic regimes like China and Russia.
However, the China’s debate over German industry comes as the country’s political winds turn. The Greens and the Free Liberal Democrats, the two parties that have joined the Social Democrats in forming a government, are taking a considerably tougher stance on China than did former Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has been criticized for years for being too soft. Merkel had made China one of her foreign policy priorities, visiting the country twelve times during her tenure as chancellor, more than all of her predecessors combined. Even during last year’s democracy protests in Hong Kong, Merkel flew to Beijing with a large business delegation and met Xi. She was also the driving force behind the EU’s investment deal with China, now frozen by the European Parliament due to Beijing’s ruthless conduct in Xinjiang.
All eyes are now on the new Chancellor, Olaf Scholz, and his Foreign Secretary, Annalena Baerbock of the Green Party. In an interview with Die Tageszeitung on December 1, Baerbock promised a foreign policy that will be “based on values”. His general message was that Germany will take a stronger stance vis-à-vis China and respond unequivocally to grievances: “In the long run, eloquent silence is not a form of diplomacy, even if it has been. seen that way in recent years, ”she added. She even suggested an import ban on products from Xinjiang, without categorically ruling out a boycott of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics.
By focusing on China and allowing the transatlantic partnership to play a bigger role again, Germany’s new government is taking a clear position in the geopolitical dispute between the United States and China. In Brussels, the change will be supported by the Czech Republic and, if the parliamentary elections next April in Hungary lead to the departure of pro-Beijing Orban, the consensus within the EU will go strongly in the anti-China direction.
Xi Jinping, deeply allergic to criticism, is well known for intimidating small nations like Lithuania, Denmark and even Australia, who question his autocratic style. Will he have the courage to intimidate a great economic and critical power like the European Union? We may soon find out.
John Dobson is a former British diplomat, who also worked in the office of British Prime Minister John Major between 1995 and 1998. He is currently a visiting scholar at the University of Plymouth.