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Opinion The Czech Republic is calling out China over Ukraine

Prague Mayor Zdenek Hrib, right, and Taipei city Mayor Ko Wen-je shake hands before signing a partnership agreement at the Old Town Square in Prague on Jan. 13, 2020. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek, File)
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The Czech Republic is calling on China to stop supporting Russia while claiming neutrality in the Russia-Ukraine war — a claim that is designed to let Beijing 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 joint threat to the world order that urgently needs to be addressed.

Even if Beijing isn’t militarily supporting Russian President Vladimir Putin’s attack, Czech Foreign Minister Jan Lipavsky told me, China is not neutral in the conflict. Lipavsky, whom I interviewed in Washington on Monday, said China has supported Russia in international organizations and is parroting Putin’s propaganda about Ukraine both externally and internally. Czech officials have warned their Chinese interlocutors against boosting support for Russia, saying this would result in “severe consequences” for Beijing’s relationships with the entire European Union, Lipavsky told me.

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

The Czech Republic is neck-deep in the Ukraine crisis. Since Putin attacked, 300,000 or so Ukrainian refugees have poured 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 Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Tuesday, rather than focus on Putin, Lipavsky wants to discuss improving U.S.-Czech cooperation on China. While in Washington, he will also meet with the National Security Council’s Indo-Pacific coordinator, Kurt Campbell, just back from an important trip to islands in the Pacific, 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 been promoting a values-based foreign policy in the tradition of former Czech president Vaclav Havel. This platform includes relatively strong support for Taiwan’s democracy, which Prague views as under severe pressure. Several Czech senators visited Taiwan in 2020, ignoring Beijing’s objections.

“We need to be in continuing discussion about how to provide Taiwan with necessary help 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.”

Views of China had already been deteriorating 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. More European governments are now responding to the concerns of their citizens by moving to reduce their economic dependence on China.

A huge E.U.-China investment agreement is in limbo, frozen after China sanctioned 10 European officials for criticizing China’s mass atrocities against Uyghur Muslims and other ethnic minorities. Beijing’s long attempt to organize Central and Eastern European countries into a diplomatic club called the “17 plus 1” group is essentially defunct.

China’s actions during the Ukraine crisis could be the last straw, Lipavsky said, because Europeans are suffering greatly from the war, and Beijing’s unhelpfulness is exacerbating that suffering. In a globalized world, no country can escape the fallout of unnecessary wars of aggression.

More broadly, the Ukraine war has shattered the long-held notion among Europeans that engaging and trading with authoritarian regimes will prevent those regimes from waging wars against democracies. And while no one knows whether China will attack Taiwan, Lipavsky argues that China has the same ambitions as Russia, and that both are challenging the international order in ways the West cannot ignore.

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

A decade ago, I interviewed a Czech foreign minister named Karel Schwarzenberg, who warned that Putin intended to restore imperial Russia by any means necessary and that the West was being 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 be wise to heed it.

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