China’s push to deepen bilateral relations with EU member states may further increase the divisions on China within the EU

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s two-day visit to Prague last week (28-30 March) was remarkable for many reasons: Xi became the first Chinese president to visit the Czech Republic, it was his first presidential visit to a Central and Eastern European (CEE) country, and it was his only stop in Europe before heading to the United States for the Nuclear Security Summit. But even placing these highlights aside, the visit is highly significant, and in particular from Berlin’s perspective.

Observers surely took notice of the investment deals signed during Xi’s visit to Prague, which are worth billions. China envisages that it will invest around €3.5 billion in 2016 alone and up to €11 billion up until 2020. Hopes are high in Prague to benefit more from China’s investment through the new Silk Road initiative, which is to include a new Eurasian Land bridge connecting China and Europe. So far, the frontrunners in securing and concluding deals with China on its Silk Road scheme, are Hungary, Poland, and Serbia (as a non-EU member state). Now the Czech Republic has become a member of this club.

In addition to the investments announced during Xi’s visit, China and the Czech Republic also upgraded their relationship to a so-called “strategic partnership”. The achievement seems to lie with President Miloš Zeman, who has engaged in serious efforts to court China in recent months. In September 2015, he was the only head of state of an EU member state to attend China’s spectacular military parade in Beijing, commemorating the 70th anniversary of the country’s victory against Japan. After signing the Memorandum of Understanding in November 2015 towards cooperation on the new Silk Road initiative between the Czech Republic and China, Zeman now sees his country becoming a gateway to China and a trade hub for China to Europe.

China’s intention and desire to strengthen business and infrastructure development is much welcomed in the Czech Republic. Germany, too, will benefit from some of the deals, such as the announced construction of the Danube-Oder-Elbe Canal, or the increase in business for the Czech car-maker Škoda, which is a subsidiary of Volkswagen Group. However, Berlin keeps a sceptical eye on China’s increasing efforts to deepen economic relations with Prague, in particular because the Czech Republic, alongside ten other EU member states, is also member of a regular consultative format made up of 16 Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries and China (therefore called “16+1”). Berlin, underlining the EU institutions’ approach, has therefore always emphasised that “16+1” cooperation is welcomed, but any agreements made (at least involving the 11 EU member states among the 16) need to be compliant with EU laws and standards, for example in regard to transparency and competition laws.

But the more worrying development is Prague’s startling turn on human rights. Previous Czech governments have not been reluctant (as compared to many other European member states) to voice their criticism on human rights in China (see ECFR’s Scorecard publications). President Zeman took an entirely new approach to this issue and stated during his visit to China in 2014, that he would refrain from "teach(ing) market economy or human rights" to the Chinese government. Shortly prior to Xi’s visit he went so far as to criticise the statements of previous Czech governments on China, suggesting they had only criticised China due to the pressure from the United States and the EU. Despite protests from opposition parties and Czech human rights activists, Zeman is leaving no doubt that he wants Chinese investment whatever it costs in terms of his moral standing.

Germany, in particular, should be alarmed about this. So far, Berlin has consistently kept human rights issues on the agenda in its high-level dialogues with China, but at this stage it is one of the few exceptions among EU member states. The more attractive Chinese investment appears to be, the less enthusiastic member states have become to voice any dissent towards China’s domestic (or foreign) policies. And all of this even despite the fact that the Xi-government has initiated a massive crackdown on academics, activists, lawyers, and the media in China, which seems to contradict any previous commitments made by Beijing to upholding the rule of law.

China’s current domestic development as well as its push to deepen bilateral relations with some EU member states will further increase the division within the EU on human rights issues and rule of law, but also on other issues such as the question of granting market economic status to China. Xi Jinping’s exclusive visit to the Czech Republic and the turn of Zeman’s government has highlighted how challenging it will be to find an EU consensus on how to deal with China on human rights issues or the market economic status. These are key questions that will define Europe’s future relationship with China. Input from Berlin is crucial to put these topics on the EU’s agenda and push towards a common EU China policy among the member states, in particular the Czech Republic given recent developments. Germany might be the only credible EU member state to do this, as it has illustrated that it is possible to have both a special relationship with China and to criticise its human rights situation.  

Read more on: Note from Berlin, Asia

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.