Xi Jinping’s Prague trip highlighted the limits to China’s soft power

Michal Thim says even though European nations that are hungry for investment and jobs have largely become more welcoming of Beijing, many obstacles stand in the way of China’s hopes to change long-standing EU policies

PUBLISHED : Monday, 04 April, 2016, 5:56pm
UPDATED : Monday, 04 April, 2016, 5:56pm

Xi Jinping’s ( 習近平 ) three-day stopover in Prague on his way to Washington may have been a mere side story overshadowed by the Chinese president’s business in the US, but Xi’s visit to the Czech Republic deserves some attention as it indicates Beijing’s approach towards the EU in general. It also offers insight into the limits of Beijing’s soft power, relying mostly on economic incentives and undermined by its own sense of insecurity.

Chinese President Xi Jinping calls for greater ties with Europe as he heads to Czech Republic

Xi’s arrival in Prague on March 28 marked a historical first visit of a Chinese president to the Czech Republic or Czechoslovakia. It was also the only stop on Xi’s way to the US. So why now?

The strategic importance of Xi’s visit goes beyond its bilateral relations with the Czechs

The current and previous Czech governments have been eager to increase Prague’s engagement with Beijing, decrease significant trade deficit and invite Chinese investments. In a pursuit of greater Chinese interest, Czech governments have adopted an approach of downplaying promotion of human rights and democracy, a mainstay of Czech foreign policy since the fall of communist regime in 1989. Czech President Milos Zeman’s newly discovered interest in China helps too. In this particular instance, Xi’s visit was an appreciation of Zeman’s attendance of Victory Day celebrations in Beijing last September, where Zeman was present as the only EU head of state.

Thus, China is seizing the window of opportunity provided by Beijing-friendly gatekeepers and the lack of a coherent long-term China strategy. In recent years, European countries appeared to emphasise short-term economic benefits and financial promises over long-term vision on how to address China’s growing prominence. Hence, the strategic importance of Xi’s visit goes beyond its bilateral relations with the Czechs. Beijing has learned from Russia in its dealings with the Europeans; the effectiveness of a divide-and-conquer strategy is perhaps the most important lesson. Moreover, unlike Moscow, Beijing has the economic wherewithal to pursue a softer approach, seizing the opportunity of many in Europe looking towards Beijing as a saviour of their faltering economies.

China knocks on the door of Europe’s free market club

However, there are inherent limits to China’s European outreach. While EU’s institutional design makes it slow to react to new circumstances, it is equally difficult to change already agreed-upon policies. The longevity of an arms sales embargo imposed on China in the aftermath of the Tiananmen massacre is a case in point. Beijing might be trying to remove the Czech Republic as one of the countries that have so far insisted on keeping the embargo in place. However, it is unlikely that Beijing could succeed to break the embargo.

Nor will China easily break long-standing foreign policy positions. Beijing tried to include specific references to Taiwan and Tibet in the text of the strategic partnership agreement, but Czech negotiators stood their ground and stuck to the usual “One China” reference without specifying what “One China” means, an ambiguous approach that allows European states to maintain semi-official relations with Taiwan.

The Czech trip also demonstrated embedded insecurity in China’s effort to secure positive image. While every country cares about its image, others do not typically mobilise large number of its nationals who reside or travel to a host country to ostensibly welcome their leader, but in reality work to counter other demonstrators. Local authorities, anxious not to give opportunity to the Chinese delegation to express discomfort, are eager to give a free pass to Chinese protesters while restricting rights of their own nationals. And that is exactly what happened in Prague last week. Needless to say, this rather tainted Xi’s visit instead of creating positive image.

Beijing should not expect that throwing money at overly eager Europeans will significantly alter the bigger picture. The list of deals agreed upon in Prague reveals that Beijing’s importance for Prague still remain marginal. A few years from now, the various investment pledges and memoranda of understanding may or may not materialise. However, the bitter taste from the events surrounding Xi’s visit won’t fade away that soon.

Michal Thim is an analyst at the Association for International Affairs in Prague