Opinion | The Czech foreign minister says Chinese claims of neutrality are a myth

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The Czech Republic is urging China to stop supporting Russia while claiming neutrality in the Russia-Ukraine war – a claim designed to allow Beijing to take advantage of the crisis, a senior Czech official told me this week. The West, he argued, must realize that China and Russia represent a common threat to the world order, which it urgently needs to address.

Although Beijing does not militarily support Russian President Vladimir Putin’s attack, Czech Foreign Minister Jan Lipavsky told me that China is not neutral in the conflict. Lipavsky, whom I interviewed in Washington on Monday, said that China has supported Russia in international organizations and is in the process of parroting Putin’s propaganda about Ukraine both externally and internally. Czech officials have warned their Chinese interlocutors against increasing support for Russia, saying this would result in “serious consequences” for Beijing’s relations with the EU as a whole, Lipavsky told me.

“We in the Czech Republic are following very closely China’s position on the Russian aggression in Ukraine, and we are signaling to them in a very clear way that if China supports Russia more, it will hurt seriously. [European Union]-China relations, “said Lipavsky, a 36-year-old member of the Czech Pirate Party. “China is trying to play on both sides, but what worries me is that Chinese propaganda is only using Russia’s narrative of the war for its own people, creating a pretext for possible future action to help Russia more.”

The Czech Republic is in the Ukraine crisis. Since Putin attacked, some 300,000 Ukrainian refugees have flooded into the Czech Republic, adding about 3 percent to the country’s population. The country is also dealing with Ukraine-related economic, energy and agricultural crises – problems it has in common with many other countries in Europe and beyond.

But when he meets with Foreign Minister Antony Blinken on Tuesday, instead of focusing on Putin, Lipavsky wants to discuss improving US-Czech cooperation on China. While in Washington, he will also meet with the Indo-Pacific Coordinator of the National Security Council, Kurt Campbell, just back from an important trip to Pacific islands, as well as the visiting President of the Tibetan government in exile, Penpa Tsering.

The new Czech government, led by Prime Minister Petr Fiala, has promoted a value-based foreign policy in the tradition of former Czech President Vaclav Havel. This platform includes relatively strong support for Taiwan’s democracy, which Prague considers to be under severe pressure. Several Czech senators visited Taiwan in 2020, ignoring Beijing’s objections.

“We need to be in constant discussion about how we can give Taiwan the help it needs and what we can do for them to protect their democracy,” Lipavsky told me. “As a small democracy, we were bullied by Soviet and Russian imperialism. The case of Taiwan is very similar in that aspect.”

The outlook for China had already worsened throughout Europe before the Ukraine invasion. This was due in part to Beijing’s disastrous handling of the covid-19 pandemic, which included China using supplies of masks and medicine to bully and blackmail several European countries. Several European governments are now responding to the concerns of their citizens by relocating to reduce their economic dependence on China.

A huge investment deal between the EU and China is in limbo, frozen after China sanctioned 10 European officials for criticizing China’s mass atrocities against Uighur Muslims and other ethnic minorities. Beijing’s long attempts to organize the countries of Central and Eastern Europe into a diplomatic club called the “17 plus 1” group have been largely abandoned.

China’s actions during the Ukraine crisis could be the icing on the cake, Lipavsky said, because Europeans suffer greatly during the war, and Beijing’s helplessness exacerbates this suffering. In a globalized world, no country can escape the onslaught of unnecessary wars of aggression.

More generally, the Ukraine war has shattered the long-standing belief among Europeans that engagement and trade in authoritarian regimes will prevent these regimes from waging wars against democracies. And while no one knows whether China will attack Taiwan, Lipavsky claims that China has the same ambitions as Russia, and that both challenge the international order in ways that the West cannot ignore.

“The lesson is that we in Western society need to build our defenses, and we need to find a way to explain it to our society because there is a cost to all of this,” Lipavsky said. “We fight for the very survival of the nature of the international order and the values ​​on which order is built.”

A decade ago, I interviewed a Czech Foreign Minister named Karel Schwarzenberg, who warned that Putin intended to restore imperial Russia by all necessary means and that the West was too complacent about it. Now the new Czech government, led by a new generation, is sounding a similar alarm – this time about China. The United States and the rest of Europe would do well to take that into account.

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