Filip Jirouš, independent analyst
May 24, 2022
The Czech government is inching away from the 16+1 platform
Last week the Czech news agency ČTK and later Reuters informed that the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Chamber of Deputies (lower house of the two-chamber parliament) urged the government to consider the possibility of reducing activities within the 16+1 platform and even abandoning it, as part of a wider review of Czech relations with the PRC. This comes amid a growing frustration of Eastern European countries with their participation in the PRC-led platform, which prompted Lithuania to officially “leave” last May.
The document (see the full text attached below) was accepted unanimously by the Committee, which also includes members of the opposition parties, but does not specifically state that the Czech Republic should terminate its participation in the 16+1 platform, though the language implies as much. The main call on the government is to “revise” the relationship, as promised in the new government’s manifesto (the current government was sworn in last December).
However, it remains unclear when (and if) the document would be discussed in the parliament (given more pressing issues such as the economic crisis, refugee crisis and the Russian war in Ukraine) or if the government would outright undertake any specific actions related to the recommendations of the committee. However, since there is no international treaty of membership in the 16+1 platform, suspending all activities within 16+1 framework quietly could be an elegant solution for the government, avoiding any official gestures that might create frictions within the political system (e.g., the Czech president Miloš Zeman, a long-time proponent of close ties with both the PRC and Russia) or with the PRC. Furthermore, there has been no high-profile meeting of the bloc, not even online. Possibly the consequence of the last year e-meeting’s partial failure (despite Xi Jinping himself attended for the first time, only Poland, the Czech Republic and Montenegro sent presidents, while some countries were represented only by ministers) and the spat between Beijing and Vilnius, meaning that the cooperation within the block virtually stalled. This might suggest that the platform is virtually dead even from the PRC point of view (though it might be revived when PRC is not mired in Covid trouble and if Eastern Europe is back to business as usual with China after the ongoing crises).
It should be also highlighted that the current Czech foreign minister Jan Lipavský has been very critical of the Czech-China cooperation, focusing on human rights and security rather than the potential economic benefits. On the other hand, the Prime Minister Petr Fiala, who seems to be the one calling the shots on major foreign affairs issues, has adopted a more moderate position, as part of the political truce between the government and the China-friendly president Zeman (and perhaps as a way to avoid antagonising the pro-business members of Fiala’s own political party). Lipavský, fiercely disliked by the president, appears to follow this moderation on issues Zeman deems important.
The “moderate” position, though, still means a rather critical stance, vocal support for those persecuted by the PRC, as well as deepening ties with Taiwan (again part of the government manifesto). Two weeks ago, the Czech Senate’s foreign affairs committee urged the government to support Taiwan’s membership in international organisations, which the government is likely to follow, despite the fact that the Senate’s resolution has already been criticised by the PRC embassy.
Regardless of any differences between key government actors, the Czech foreign policy has changed profoundly. While the previous PM more or less followed Zeman’s foreign affairs policy (driven by the interests of Zeman’s associates), mostly limited to building trade relations with China and the former Soviet bloc, the current government is pro-actively deepening ties with liberal democracies (e.g., the US, EU nations, Taiwan) and strengthening the country’s participation in NATO and EU structures.
The change was experienced first-hand by Huo Yuzhen (霍玉珍), the MFA 16+1 special representative, during her spring 2022 visit to eight of the 16+1 countries that was China’s attempt to “explain” its position on Russia. In Prague, Huo was given the cold shoulder and told that the country is “concerned about China’s cooperation with Russia in the context of the war in Ukraine”, while the previous mutually-beneficial cooperation rhetoric was all but absent.
In conclusion, even if the 16+1 platform reboots, the current Czech government will likely not participate significantly. Depending on the domestic situation and the dynamics between Zeman and Fiala, the country would either be completely absent from the platform’s meetings or it would send a low-level representative. This is the result of PRC’s failure to deliver any tangible economic benefits, while exploiting the platform for political goals, as well as the weakening of PRC-friendly actors within the Czech political environment in recent years. Amid the ongoing crises, the Czech government has decided to firmly re-orientate itself toward the West.
The Parliament of the Czech Republic
Chamber of Deputies
the Foreign Affairs Committee
of the 9th session held on 19th May, 2022
regarding the information about the current state of the 16+1 platform (cooperation between China and Central and Eastern European countries)
After the opening speech by the deputy foreign affairs minister Jiří Kozák, presentation by Professor Olga Lomová, from the Department of Sinology of the Charles University’s Faculty of Arts, and the rapporteur report by Deputy Marek Ženíšek and discussion,
I. acknowledges the information provided by government representatives and members of the expert community;
II. states that the platform for cooperation between China and Central and Eastern European countries, also known as 16+1, has not brought any significant benefits to the member states in our region in the ten years of its existence, and that it has served more as a tool for advancement of unilateral interests of the People’s Republic of China;
III. states that since the establishment of the 16+1 platform, there has been a major change in China’s behaviour, and, since the the new leadership headed by Xi Jinping took power, the country has begun to act as a systemic rival to the European Union and the United States of America, aspiring to global leadership;
IV. acknowledges Lithuania’s May 2021 decision to leave the platform for cooperation between China and Central and Eastern European countries, among other reasons due to the absence of benefits of membership in this grouping;
V. urges the government of the Czech Republic to consider the possibility of reducing activities within the 16+1 platform’s framework and of abandoning it, as part of the revision of relations with China, to which the government pledged itself in its manifesto.
(the original text in Czech can be found here)
 With Zeman gone (already served for two terms) after the 2023 presidential elections, it is quite possible that this Czech foreign policy shift might become even more significant.