In late August 2020, President of the Czech Senate Milos Vystrcil made headlines by making an official trip to Taiwan, despite harsh rebukes and even threats from China. That move came amid a broader trend of skepticism toward China among the countries of Central and Eastern Europe. Two years later, China’s unwillingness to condemn Russia’s ongoing war against Ukraine has only further solidified the region’s suspicions of Beijing.
The Czech Senate president recently visited Washington, D.C., for bilateral meetings. The Diplomat’s Shannon Tiezzi held a virtual meeting with Vystrcil to discuss his trip to Taiwan, China-Czechia relations, and transatlantic cooperation on the Indo-Pacific. The interview, conducted via a translator, has been lightly edited for clarity.
I’d like to get your thoughts on China’s response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Beijing is widely seen as supporting Russia, at least rhetorically. How has that impacted China’s image in the Czech Republic?
First, I think that the situation today with China is that it wants to and endeavors to maintain a strategic partnership with Russia, hence it is rather supporting the Russian aggression in Ukraine. But on the other hand, it is also being a bit cautious because China wants to maintain its business links with the free and democratic world, so they have to be careful what they do. It is often said that the Chinese are attacking with a sword on loan, so they are trying to play it on both sides.
Has public opinion in the Czech Republic toward China changed because of China’s stance in this war?
The public opinion in the Czech Republic has never been in favor of China, so in this respect nothing much has changed. On the contrary, the position of China toward the Russian aggression in Ukraine has confirmed that China is a totalitarian country, which always follows its own interest and acts on its own best interests.
I think that both the citizens in the Czech Republic as well as those in Europe have got used to the relatively cheap Chinese products that you can buy and use. And in this respect, these goods are still readily available in the Czech Republic, and it’s not like the Czechs or any other nation will actually be boycotting purchases in the shops or stores.
What do you think is the future of the Czech Republic’s participation in the 16+1 initiative? The lower house’s foreign affairs committee recommended that Czechia leave the grouping.
Well, this is of course a topic that becomes even more topical these days. We are actually discussing this issue on the Senate level, as well as in the course of our meetings with the congressmen and senators here in the United States of America. Personally, I consider the 16+1 format to be non-functional, because it was a format that was introduced by China only to increase its influence in this part of the world.
If we were to leave the format, I would strongly be in favor of actually coordinating and discussing this move, because if we do it on an individual basis there is a high risk of the fact that China will retaliate, because it always does. If we were to leave it in a larger group, it would be more significant.
Have there been any discussions toward that end?
Yes, there have been discussions. But I think unless we have an agreement there is no need to actually communicate that and present that to the general public, because as I said it requires a thoroughly thought-out series of actions that need to be taken. And moreover, we must have not only step one prepared, but also we have to prepare step two, step three, and all the following steps.
You mentioned the threat of retaliation from China, which is something I wanted to discuss as well. China threatened that you would “pay a heavy price” – that’s a quote – for your visit to Taiwan. What actions did China actually take in response? Do you feel like there has been a “heavy price” to pay?
I first and foremost felt the pressure from the Chinese side prior to my visit to Taiwan. This was in the form of me being actually warned, if you will, not to take pictures in front of the Taiwanese flag. Furthermore, I was told that the director of my office, the chief of staff, should not give interviews about the course of action and the events that have unfolded around my predecessor in the position of the president of the Senate, Mr. Kubera, and that we should not praise Taiwan for delivering us medical equipment in the course of the COVID crisis.
After having returned from Taiwan, I did not feel any pressure on a personal level. Of course, when it comes to the bilateral relations between the People’s Republic of China and the Senate of the Parliament of the Czech Republic, for example, our relations are at a basically zero point. There are no contacts, no activities.
I think one of the reasons I have not felt the pressure after my return from Taiwan was the fact that the entire democratic world had actually stood up for us and stood up behind our mission to Taiwan once we were threatened by the People’s Republic of China that we “will pay a heavy price.” This support was received from Germany, France, Slovakia, and obviously we were enjoying the long-term support of the United States in this respect as well, as the Czech Republic government. I think it was actually this strong sort of movement, international movement and reaction that prevented the consequences.
On the other hand, this certainly does not mean that the Chinese have forgotten or will not do anything.
From your perspective, why was it important for you to visit Taiwan? You mentioned in an interview that it was in Czechia’s national interest. Can you explain exactly what interests you saw being fulfilled by forging this connection?
First and foremost, I think that every man, and a politician in particular, should not succumb to blackmail. You should do whatever you believe is actually true. Of course, I wanted to do this because this is alongside the traditions and principles the Czech Republic stood for already in the times of Tomas Masaryk, the first president, and then the principles that were reinforced by Vaclav Havel. And that goes along the lines that our country will always support other countries that are free, democratic, and respect human rights.
Of course, I commented on that when I said that we will either “count the pennies or stand up for the values.” And I always advocate for standing up for values instead of counting pennies.
The second reason why it was important to go was the fact that, as I have said, we must not allow anyone to blackmail us or the threaten us. In other words, we must be able to keep our backs straight. In history, there were moments when we sort of took a bow in front of these sort of pressures and it did not pay off, because this is not the way you build a strong and proud nation, this is not a way to build morale, so we need to be capable of building a proud nation that will stand up to these challenges.
And this is actually exactly in the lines of your question, “why was it in Czechia’s national interest?” Because, to add, the situation and experience from 1938 and 1968 when our nation did not keep its back straight has left a deep scar in our society, and we should not make this scar even deeper. On the contrary.
The third reason why it was necessary to go was the economic reason. Taiwan is an advanced country with plenty on offer in the areas of economic cooperation, trade and exchange, education, research and development, technology transfer and exchange, and then the smart economy. So there is certainly something that needs to be built on, and we are continuing cooperation that was started in the course of this visit.
These were the three main reasons, to summarize that. But obviously, then there was this element of my predecessor in the capacity of the president of the Senate, the late Jaroslav Kubera. And I thought it would be good, if the Senate and the Senate president started something, it would always be good to actually complete it because we need to maintain the continuity. So was rather the emotional part of the reason.
[Editor’s note: Former Senate President Kubera passed away in January 2020, as he was making preparations for a visit to Taiwan.]
You spoke at length about China’s “blackmail” and retaliation. I want to speak a little bit about Lithuania, which has been suffering from economic coercion over its own moves on Taiwan. Do you feel that the democratic world has offered enough support to Lithuania in the face of Chinese pressure?
It did not, actually, in my opinion. It did not receive enough support. We should be more supportive, we should show more solidarity toward Lithuania. But it goes back to what I have said, which is that any such move and gesture toward China has to be well thought out and planned and coordinated with other countries. Because you have to bear in mind that China, as a economic superpower, it’s very strong in terms of its economy and unfortunately – and I underline the word “unfortunately” – there are too many products and raw materials from China that we cannot do without at this moment in time. This is very unfortunate. So we need to coordinate better in this respect.
With respect to Lithuania, we should actually support it also from the economic point of view. We should actually be buying the products that have been banned from being sold in China and we should provide more support to Lithuania. We’re certainly not doing everything we can in this respect.
Does the example of Lithuania change the outlook for Czechia to pursue closer ties with Taiwan?
I think that it just showed us and proved to us again how unreliable a business partner a totalitarian country is, because it’s using the economic tool that should be dependent and be negotiated between business partners, between manufacturer and exporters, but China is using it for achieving its political interests. So the Chinese decision with respect to Lithuania confirmed my conviction that the way we are headed in, that means cooperation with Taiwan, the United States of America, the countries of the Indo-Pacific region, as well as deepened cooperation between the EU member states, is the correct path to take in terms of reducing our dependency on China when it comes to supplies of certain material and products.
You mentioned cooperation with the United States, and obviously, you are here in Washington, D.C., for meetings with your U.S. counterparts. How much coordination is there between Czechia and the United States on China issues, and on Taiwan in particular?
I can share something with you, but I certainly cannot tell you everything.
Certainly I can tell you that that I discussed it with our counterparts both in the Senate as well as Congress, and we also met with the counselor of the State Department, Mr. [Derek] Chollet. And it is something that I have consulted on with the prime minister of the Czech Republic, Mr. [Petr] Fiala.
It goes in hand with the fact that the Czech Republic will assume the presidency of the EU Council as of the first of July this year, and one of the priorities will be to reinforce transatlantic links between Europe and the U.S. One of the issues that we are discussing with our counterparts here is, how can the Czech Republic contribute to the fact that the EU gets more involved in the activities in the Indo-Pacific region in general.
The second thing we’re addressing in the talks is increasing our defense capabilities, including deliveries of military materiel.
And the third area of the discussion revolves around deepening our bilateral relations in the form of personal visits that will allow for more exchange of opinions and cooperation. .
Obviously I do admit there is lot behind those broad statements, but I cannot comment on those any further.
Generally speaking, do you feel like there’s a lot of convergence between the position of yourself, and also more broadly the Czech government, and the position of your counterparts in the United States on China?
I think you can summarize it this way: Following our meetings with Counselor Chollet, following our negotiations and meetings with the chairman of the [Senate] Foreign Relations Committee, Mr. Menendez, and following our meeting with Senator Ted Cruz yesterday [June 6], and we will be meeting more of our counterparts today, so far we have always confirmed our attitudes toward the People’s Republic of China. And we also agreed on the fact that China will represent the single biggest problem in the years to come in terms of politics.
And also we agreed on our positions with respect to Ukraine, and we agreed on the fact that it is necessary and paramount to continue to support Ukraine in order to defeat the Russian aggression.
The United States’ attitudes toward China are broadly shared among the different political parties. Is there a divide in the Czech Republic between the political parties? I noticed that President Zeman was quite critical of your trip to Taiwan. Is there disagreement within Czechia’s political parties on how to best approach China?
As for the position of the Czech government and the Czech Parliament, following the last election in the autumn of last year, there is general agreement.
As far as President Zeman is concerned, it is true that he was very much against me visiting Taiwan and stepping up for the case of defending democracy and freedom in Taiwan. And this is rather on a light note, I have to say that I can’t get my head around his actual positions at the moment. He would always refer to the policy of multiple directions, but I think that he now applies this policy to himself personally. Because following his numerous statements in support of Russia and Mr. Putin’s policies, he all of a sudden became a staunch support of President Zelenskyy [of Ukraine]. I am still far from being sure whether or not his internal transformation has also included his opinion on China, with respect to its support toward Russia.
So, in other words, I haven’t had an opportunity to ask him about that, but I think that the arrow on his compass is on the move, if you will. So we will see.
We’ve spoken quite a bit about China and Taiwan. You also mentioned other partners in the Indo-Pacific for the Czech Republic to engage with. Which countries do you think are the most important to deepen relations with?
Certainly, on top of Taiwan, our focus would include countries such as Korea and Japan, because I think these are probably the most important partners for us in the entire Indo-Pacific region. And personally, I am very much impressed by the attitude and position of Japan, which was a nice surprise.
There’s a lot of focus paid to India in the U.S. at the moment. Is that a partner that Czechia is also interested in pursuing relations with?
Certainly India is a partner for us, but as opposed to the People’s Republic of China, with which we have an agreement on strategic investments, we do not have this document in place for India. Nevertheless, we should pay attention to India. We should dedicate our efforts to extend cooperation and we need to, furthermore, make sure that India is a country that will cooperate with other nations while knowing that the People’s Republic of China and Russia are not reliable partners to do business with.