China’s interest in Czech Republic is part of a broad strategy to build ties with ‘belt and road’ countries
Xi Jinping’s visit to Prague was met with suspicion by some but the country is a key hub for Chinese logistics and tourism in central and eastern Europe
A country as small in area, population and economy as the Czech Republic would not seem to warrant more than a passing interest from China. Yet President Xi Jinping (習近平) made it the only stop in Europe on his way to the nuclear summit in Washington, meeting his Czech counterpart, Milos Zeman, for the fourth time and overseeing a host of strategic and business deals. A geographical location in the heartland of Europe and being at one end of the “One Belt, One Road” plan are important factors for Beijing, but there is nothing one-sided about the relationship. Cooperation has mutual benefits that will help growth and development while building trust and understanding.
Zeman is the Czech Republic’s first China-friendly president and he has been enthusiastically pushing ties since taking office in 2013. He was the only European leader at Beijing’s military parade marking the 70th anniversary of the end of the second world war. Predecessors looked to Europe as being their future; little more than a decade after the Soviet Union’s grip ended, the nation had joined the European Union. But pragmatism rather than ideology now guides the presidency and with the European economy sluggish, China is being turned to for trade, investment and infrastructure.
Such conditions offer an opportunity that cannot be ignored. The Czech Republic, as Zeman pointed out to Chinese media, is a natural gateway to Europe for China. Xi’s visit, his first to the continent this year, also comes as China is stepping up efforts to turn the belt and road initiative into reality by deepening relations with the 60 countries along the route. Eastern and central European nations are crucial links to the Central Asian and Russia legs of the initiative.
Not all leaders and politicians see the need to embrace China. Zeman faces opposition from critics who favour Europe or are suspicious of Chinese intentions. Objections centre on disputes over human rights and trade. They are challenges that no matter how friendly the government of the day in a particular country is, have to be overcome.
The strategic partnership and 20 deals struck in Prague during Xi’s visit bode well for building strong relations with belt and road countries. With continued work, the Czech Republic is on track to become a key hub for Chinese logistics and tourism in central and eastern Europe. But there is also a need to lessen scepticism and mistrust in societies. Building political consensus through cooperation, coordination and exchanges are as important.