Czech-Taiwan Relations in the Wake of the 2021 Czech Elections

Czech-Taiwan Relations in the Wake of the 2021 Czech Elections

Czech-Taiwan Relations in the Wake of the 2021 Czech Elections

On October 9, 2021, the political environment in the Czech Republic underwent a remarkable shift. Following four years under a minority government led by Prime Minister Andrej Babiš’s populist ANO party, the Central European nation shocked many observers by electing a coalition of traditional, center-right parties. For Babiš, whose party had consistently ranked higher than its opposition in pre-election polls, the results were undoubtedly a disappointment. For Taiwan, however, the election should be seen as a significant opportunity. 

Over the past several years, the Czech Republic has emerged as one of Taiwan’s strongest supporters on the European continent. Spurred by shared democratic values and rising discontent with the aggressive actions of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Prague has increasingly sought to forge new connections with partners in Taipei. This outreach accelerated significantly as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, during which Taiwan’s successful approach to containing the virus—focused on transparency and openness—contrasted favorably with China’s overbearing, authoritarian tactics. Beginning with relatively minor medical donations and building to larger, more consequential diplomatic visits, the Czech-Taiwan relationship has steadily developed into a relatively productive partnership. Nevertheless, this progress was consistently hampered by Babiš, who relied heavily on the political support of Miloš Zeman, the country’s Beijing-aligned president. Now, however, with Babiš sidelined and a more Taiwan-friendly government in power, Taipei has an unprecedented opportunity to make in-roads in the Central European nation.

The 2021 Czech Legislative Elections

In the lead-up to the October elections, the competition was largely framed as a chance for Babiš and his party to consolidate their somewhat precarious electoral position. Public polling had consistently shown ANO with a sizable lead over its adversaries. While that lead had diminished somewhat in the weeks prior to the election, ANO was nevertheless expected to maintain its grip on power. As the results of the contest demonstrated, however, this was not to be. In the closest election since the country’s establishment in 1993, ANO was narrowly defeated by SPOLU, a political alliance consisting of the center-right Civic Democratic Party (ODS), the Christian-democratic KDU-ČSL, and the liberal-conservative TOP 09. Though ANO maintained the most seats in the 200-member Chamber of Deputies (the Czech Republic’s Lower House of Parliament), SPOLU received the largest percentage of the popular vote. Subsequently, SPOLU formed a coalition government with the left-leaning Pirates and Mayors alliance, with ODS leader Petr Fiala chosen to be the next prime minister. With a strong, 108-seat majority, the new government has the potential to fundamentally shift Czech foreign policy in the coming years. For Taiwan and China, this could prove significant.

Czech Politics and the Cross-Strait Relationship

Over the course of the decade preceding the 2021 election, the Czech Republic substantially altered its approach to the cross-Strait relationship. Starting in 2012, the Czech Republic began a steady drift towards the PRC. That year, it joined 15 other Central and Eastern European countries in signing onto the Cooperation between China and Central and Eastern European Countries (China-CEEC, popularly known as the “16+1 initiative”), a China-led grouping intended to promote ties between Beijing and regional capitals. Prague’s flirtation with China subsequently accelerated following the 2013 election of President Zeman, a former prime minister who frequently espoused pro-Beijing sentiments. Motivated by potential economic gains and a rising skepticism of the European Union, Zeman went to significant lengths to improve the country’s relations with Beijing, visiting China several times and developing a personal relationship with Chinese leader Xi Jinping (習近平). Notably, the president conducted much of this outreach in a personal capacity, leading to criticism that he was pursuing an “alternative foreign policy, operating outside that of the government.” This personalistic diplomacy continued following the inauguration of Babiš in 2017. While Babiš was reportedly wary of China and its influence in the Czech Republic, he relied heavily on Zeman for political support. Accordingly, the prime minister generally deferred to Zeman on matters relating to China, supporting collaborations with Beijing and discouraging outreach to Taiwan.

Despite this challenging dynamic, the Czech Republic and Taiwan managed to develop a limited partnership during the latter half of Babiš’s tenure, albeit primarily at the municipal and legislative levels. This cooperation began in late 2019, when a diplomatic dispute over the “One-China Policy” led Prague Mayor Zdeněk Hřib—a member of the left-leaning Pirate Party—to terminate Prague’s sister city agreement with Beijing, and establish a new one with Taipei. Soon after, in March 2020, the two nations signed an agreement to collaborate on efforts to combat COVID-19, which later resulted in numerous instances of medical cooperation. Building on these developments, Czech Senate President Miloš Vystrčil—a senior figure in the ODS—led an unprecedented, 90-member legislative delegation to Taiwan in August 2020. During the visit, Vystrčil met with Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) and spoke before the Legislative Yuan, where he declared “I am a Taiwanese.” This trip was later reciprocated in October 2021, when Taiwan Foreign Minister Joseph Wu (吳釗燮) visited Prague, met with leading Czech officials, and received a medal from Vystrčil for “defending democracy and freedom.” 

As these events clearly demonstrated, Taiwan has proven to be something of a wedge issue within the Czech government in recent years. While legislative leaders (such as Vystrčil) and municipal leaders (such as Hřib) proactively sought expanded ties with Taipei, national-level executive leaders have reliably resisted these efforts. This unique phenomenon was well-illustrated in the wake of Vystrčil’s delegation to Taiwan. In response to a predictably furious reaction from Beijing, President Zeman dismissed the visit as little more than a “boyish provocation,” while Babiš scrambled to maintain ties between Czech companies and their Chinese partners. As a result of this governmental discordance, ties between the Czech Republic and Taiwan have essentially followed a pattern of “two steps forward, one step back.” However, this dynamic will likely change substantially under the new government.

The Fiala Government and Taiwan

While a great deal remains uncertain about the Fiala government’s foreign policy approach, its personnel appointments and policy documents suggest that the administration will take a different tack than its predecessor vis-à-vis China and Taiwan. In December, Fiala selected Pirate Party lawmaker Jan Lipavský to be the new minister of foreign affairs. As several observers have noted, Lipavský has long been a critic of China and its authoritarian behavior. Perhaps unsurprisingly, his appointment was met with disdain by Zeman, who briefly refused to approve Lipavský’s nomination. The selection of Lipavský was very much in keeping with broader objectives of the new government. Rejecting the previous administration’s pursuit of ties with China and Russia, the Fiala government has repeatedly emphasized its intention to strengthen its partnerships with other democracies. Specifically, members of the administration have stated their desire to pursue a foreign policy similar to that of former President Václav Havel, who famously prioritized human rights and self-determination. 

This governmental focus on democratic partnerships was formally expressed in the Fiala Administration’s four-year administrative plan, released in January 2022. Among a wide range of initiatives, the plan outlines efforts to safeguard human rights, promote civil society groups, and improve relations with democratic nations, including Taiwan. Framing these policies as a “moral obligation,” the plan firmly places the Czech Republic on the side of democracy, while also calling for a reevaluation of the country’s relations with China and Russia. 

While it should be noted that the new government has thus far said little about the country’s relationship with Taiwan, its focus on democratic cooperation and distrust of China suggest that an expanded Czech-Taiwan partnership could be possible. 

In the wake of the 2021 elections, such enhanced collaboration seems more realistic than ever. Following years of China-focused foreign policy under Babiš, the Fiala government should face fewer roadblocks in approaching Taiwan. While Zeman will technically remain in office until 2023, the president has struggled with serious health issues for several years, leading to speculation that he will not finish his term. However, even if Zeman were to fully recover, he would be unlikely to find willing collaborators in the Fiala Administration. Unlike Babiš, Fiala does not owe his political position to Zeman, and would face limited pressure to support the president’s policy agenda. 

Ultimately, the 2021 elections could potentially serve as a turning point in the Czech approach to China and Taiwan. With Zeman largely sidelined, China’s defenders have largely been pushed out of government. While the 2023 (or earlier) presidential election could certainly change this, several of the leading candidates have already expressed strong reservations about Chinese influence, with one contender stating that China posed a greater threat to the Czech Republic than terrorism. Increasingly, it seems that China’s political influence in the Czech Republic has eroded significantly. For Taiwan, this could present an unprecedented opportunity.

What’s Next for Taiwan?

For Taipei, the 2021 elections could prove to be critical for its relations with Central and Eastern Europe. While the region has long been a key bastion of support for Beijing, recent developments in Lithuania, Slovenia, and Slovakia—as well as the aforementioned Czech-Taiwan ties—suggest that China’s influence may be waning. With this in mind, Taiwan should be proactive in establishing a relationship with the Fiala government, with the goal of expanding on existing arrangements and forging new ones. Specifically, Taipei should:

  • Emphasize Taiwan’s strong commitment to democratic values: As the Fiala government’s four-year administrative plan makes clear, building partnerships with other democratic nations is a key priority. Given Taiwan’s well-earned reputation as a resilient democracy, and its experience fending off authoritarian pressure, it could be an ideal partner for the Czech Republic—especially given Czech concerns regarding Chinese and Russian influence.
  • Encourage further diplomatic exchanges between Taiwan and the Czech Republic: Recent diplomatic delegations have demonstrated that such visits can improve mutual understanding and create opportunities for beneficial negotiations. Taiwan should encourage members of the new administration to visit Taiwan, while also sending diplomats to Prague.
  • Seek opportunities for economic cooperation: Given Taiwan’s role as a leader in high-tech manufacturing, it could be strong partner for the Czech government, particularly as it works to disentangle its economy from that of China. Taipei should work to negotiate mutually beneficial trade deals and encourage Taiwanese companies to seek partnerships with Czech counterparts.

Taken together, these initiatives could allow Taiwan to capitalize on an unprecedented opportunity. As recent years have shown, there is already an appetite for collaboration with Taiwan in the Czech Republic. Now, with many of the most prominent obstacles out of the way, the path towards a stronger Czech-Taiwan relationship is far clearer than it once was. If Taipei moves proactively, it could secure firm relations with a valuable diplomatic partner right in the heart of Europe.

The main point: With a surprise victory in the 2021 Czech legislative election, the Fiala government seems poised to seek expanded democratic partnerships with Taiwan. If it acts proactively, Taiwan could gain a strong partner in Central Europe.

The author would like to thank GTI Intern Adrienne Wu for her research assistance.