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New Czech president risks China’s rage with call to Taiwanese leader

EU will watch Beijing for economic retaliation after Petr Pavel breaks Chinese diplomatic taboo.

By Stuart Lau

January 30, 2023

Petr Pavel, the Czech Republic's president-elect, held a phone call with Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen on Monday, becoming the first elected European head of state to do so, in a move that risks angering China.

European Union leaders traditionally refrain from direct political contact with Taiwanese authorities, limiting official exchanges to the level of civil servants, and often conducting dialogue under the radar.

But international attention on Taiwan has been on the rise as a result of China's escalating military threats toward the self-ruling island that Beijing claims as its territory.

Pavel confirmed the conversation on Twitter, saying: "Today, I spoke with the president of Taiwan Tsai Ing-wen. I thanked her for her congratulations and I assured her that Taiwan and the Czech Republic share the values of freedom, democracy, and human rights. We agreed on strengthening our partnership."

Taiwanese observers have compared Tsai's phone call with Pavel to the one she held with Donald Trump, who also spoke to her as president-elect of the U.S.

"Pavel went so far as responding 'yes'; to a journalist’s question at one of the pre-election interviews when he was asked whether he would visit Taiwan if elected president," said Ivana Karásková, founder of China Observers in Central and Eastern Europe, a think tank based in Prague. "The move would be unprecedented as sitting presidents of EU member states seldom visit there. I cannot think of anyone."

Chinese diplomats in Prague had been "in contact" with the Czech authorities to try to stop Pavel from making the call to Taipei, Czech media reported.

In Brussels, diplomats are watching cautiously to see whether Beijing will follow with economic retaliation. When Beijing blocked imports from Lithuania in 2021 after it began building ties with Taiwan, the EU had to act on behalf of the Baltic state and launched legal proceedings against China at the World Trade Organization.

Pavel's move marks a sharp rupture with his predecessor's policy toward China. The current Czech President Miloš Zeman, in power since 2013, has advocated a strong pro-Beijing line, even though it became increasingly at odds with the other political heavyweights in his home country.

In a striking move, Zeman appointed Ye Jianming, former chairman of China Energy Company, as his honorary economic adviser — until the billionaire businessman was detained by Chinese authorities in secrecy in 2018. His whereabouts remain unknown.

"While public opinion didn't care about Czech position on China, it's different in politics," Petr Tůma, a visiting fellow at the Atlantic Council, said. "Those who were opposed to Zeman used his China-friendly policy to distance themselves from the president."


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