On his first day in office, the new Prime Minister Fiala sent a message to capitals around the world: ‘Our country is turning West’. The message came in the form of Fiala’s choice for foreign minister, Jan Lipavsky, a 36-year-old China hawk.

London: ‘China is an unreliable trading partner that has not kept its promises on investments in the Czech Republic”, said Zdenek Hrib, mayor of Prague in an interview earlier last year. His comments came as more and more Eastern European countries, courted by Beijing as a partner for the New Silk Road, are distancing themselves from China.
It all looked so different only five years ago.
President Xi Jinping will have thought it was game set and match when he arrived in Prague in May 2016, the first stop on an overseas tour that also took him to Washington for the nuclear security summit. His visit to the Czech Republic, also known by the shortened “Czechia”, came amid a broader push to deepen China’s relations with Central and Eastern European countries. A year earlier, China signed deals to construct a high-speed railroad linking Budapest in Hungary to Serbia’s capital, Belgrade, as well as promising to invest in ports and industrial parks along the coastal areas of the Adriatic, Baltic and Black Seas. Beijing viewed these Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries as a window to broader relations with Europe as a whole, particularly under the framework of Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The CEE countries were also crucial links between the Central Asian and Russian legs of the Silk Road Economic Belt and the final destinations in Western Europe. Many were falling over each other to claim a position as China’s “bridge to Europe”, with all the economic benefits that could entail.
Czechia in particular had been moving to rapidly increase ties with China under its President, Milos Zemen who, ignoring debates in Prague over the wisdom of his approach, had visited Beijing twice in the preceding two years. On one occasion he was the only sitting Western leader to attend Beijing’s massive military parade to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the end of World War 2, two months later signing an MOU with China pledging to cooperate on the Belt and Road.
Zeman’s pro-China stance attracted much criticism in Czechia at the time. A former finance minister, Miroslav Kalousek, accused him of “bootlicking authoritarian and unfree regimes”. In a more diplomatic tweet, Petr Fiala, a former minister of education, said “we cannot fall on our knees and deny our professed values”. Fiala is now the Czech Prime Minister.
The dramatic general election in Czechia last October, which attracted an unusually high turnout of younger voters eager to remove the populist oligarch and Prime Minister, Andrej Babis, currently under investigation by Brussels, marked a turning point in Czech politics. On his first day in office, the new Prime Minister Fiala sent a message to capitals around the world: “Our country is turning West”. The message came in the form of Fiala’s choice for foreign minister, Jan Lipavsky, a 36-year-old China hawk, Russian critic and vocal defender of the EU and NATO. During the election campaign, Lipavsky had specifically described both China and Russia as a “threat to the Czech Republic”, arguing that his country had surrendered some of its principles in recent dealings with Beijing and Moscow. Months earlier, Lipavsky was one of the politicians responsible for excluding China and Russia from bidding for contracts to build reactors at a Czech nuclear power station. He also favours deepening ties with Taiwan, calling it “an important economic partner of the Czech Republic many times more important than the People’s Republic of China”. A statement unlikely to endear him to Beijing.
Pointedly, Lipavsky has been cool towards deepening relations with the other Visegrad nations—Hungary, Poland and Slovakia, a view which will be music to the ears of Brussels, annoyed by both Budapest and Warsaw’s questioning of the supremacy of EU law over national law. It will also send a strong message to voters in Hungary, where parliamentary elections are being held next April and the strongly pro-China Prime Minister Victor Orban is under threat from a coalition of parties determined to remove him. Orban has been China’s most reliable European ally, and his departure will boost the chances for the success of the EU’s new “Global Gateway Strategy”, unveiled on 1 December. Mooted as a potential European answer to China’s BRI, Brussels claims that the new EU strategy, worth up to 300 billion euros, is designed to increase investments promoting democratic values, high standards, and good governance. The new strategy also clearly represents a hardening of views on China.
With Europe’s largest population and economy, Germany is key to the success of the EU’s Global Gateway Strategy and the EU’s foreign policy. Last year, Germany was once again China’s most important trading partner, with a volume of trade of over 212 billion euros, but today German business is getting queasy about China. For decades, German industry—an early mover in the Chinese market—looked the other way amid Beijing’s human rights abuses, while managers and engineers helped transform the country into Germany’s largest trading partner. But as Xi Jinping tightens the country’s surveillance state, threatens neighbours and takes on an increasingly belligerent tone with the West, Germany’s China strategy, shaped to serve the needs of its export industry, is looking increasingly unsustainable. For many years, German executives and politicians peddled the idea of “transformation through trade” as a mechanism for turning Asia’s juggernaut into a Western-style democracy. But today not even China’s biggest defenders in Germany are continuing with this pretence. Leading German industry players are now joining prominent politicians in calling for a fundamental rethink of the country’s approach to China and other autocratic states.
But this leaves German business more exposed to China than any of its European peers, faced with an impossible choice between preserving a crucial trade relationship and observing liberal ideals Germany holds dear. One in four German jobs relies on exports, and much of that trade is with autocratic regimes, such as China and Russia.
However, German industry’s China debate comes as the country’s political winds are shifting. Both the Greens and the liberal Free Democrats, the two parties that have joined the Social Democrats in forming a government, take a considerably harder line on China than did former Chancellor Angela Merkel, who for years had been criticized for being too soft. Merkel had made China one of her foreign policy priorities, visiting the country twelve times during her time as chancellor, more than all her predecessors combined. Even during last year’s democracy protests in Hong Kong, Merkel flew to Beijing with a large trade delegation and met with Xi. She was also the driving force behind the EU’s investment agreement with China, now frozen by the EU parliament because of Beijing’s callous conduct in Xinjiang.
All eyes are now on the new Chancellor, Olaf Scholz, and his foreign secretary, Annalena Baerbock from the Green Party. In an interview with Die Tageszeitung on 1 December, Baerbock pledged a foreign policy that will be “value-based”. Her overall message was that Germany will take a tougher stance on China and address grievances unequivocally: “In the long run, eloquent silence is not a form of diplomacy, even if it has been seen that way in recent years”, she added. She even suggested an import ban for products from Xinjiang, while not categorically ruling out a boycott of the 2022 Olympic Winter Games in Beijing.
With its new focus on China, and allowing the transatlantic partnership to play a more important role again, the new German government is taking an unambiguous stance in the geopolitical dispute between the US and China. In Brussels, the change will be supported by Czechia and, if next April’s parliamentary elections in Hungary result in the departure of pro-Beijing Orban, the consensus in the EU will move heavily in the anti-China direction.
Xi Jinping, deeply allergic to criticism, is well known for bullying small nations such as Lithuania, Denmark and even Australia, who question his autocratic style. Will he have the courage to bully a major economic power and critic such as the European Union? We might soon find out.
John Dobson is a former British diplomat, who also worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s office between 1995 and 1998. He is currently Visiting Fellow at the University of Plymouth.