PRAGUE -- In accepting a 15-minute phone call with his Taiwanese counterpart, Czech President-elect Petr Pavel broke decades of diplomatic protocol and set the stage for a new era of relations between Europe and China -- with his country potentially at the forefront.
The January 30 call with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-Wen came shortly after Pavel was elected as the Czech Republic's next president and drew backlash from Beijing, which condemned the call and accused Prague of trampling its "red line."
The conversation marked a departure from previous norms for dealing with high-ranking politicians from the self-governing island. Official exchanges are often limited to civil servants and the lower levels of ministries. But Pavel became the first elected European head of state to speak directly with a Taiwanese leader.
The move from the incoming Czech president comes as the European Union rethinks its relationship with Beijing -- a process that has been accelerated by China's handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, its increasingly aggressive diplomatic rhetoric, and Beijing's continued support for Russia despite its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.
"We shouldn't let China do to Taiwan what Russia is doing to Ukraine," Petr Kolar, a former Czech diplomat who advises Pavel on foreign policy issues, told RFE/RL in an interview. "I believe what's happening in Ukraine is because of [Europe's] lack of a clear message to Russia over the years. This was a wake-up call, and it shows how important it is to show from the very beginning that fellow democracies like Taiwan won't be abandoned."
Taiwan and China split in 1949 following a civil war. From the 1970s onward, most countries established formal ties with Beijing, leaving Taipei with few official friends as China's political and economic power has expanded globally. Beijing views Taiwan as a rogue province and has vowed to unify it with mainland China -- even by force, if necessary.
In breaking diplomatic precedent, Kolar said the Czech Republic now finds itself well-positioned to "influence or persuade" other European leaders to break new ground in their engagement with Taipei. In recent years, a slew of European lawmakers from a handful of countries have visited Taipei and met with the Taiwanese leadership, drawing Beijing's ire.
A former NATO general, Pavel has set the stage for continued outreach to Taiwan. On the campaign trail and following the call with Tsai, he vowed to meet the Taiwanese president in person -- although he has not specified when, where, or in what format the meeting would take place.
"The [phone call] breaks the ice for doing this," Martin Hala, a China expert at Charles University in Prague and the director of Sinopsis, a project that tracks Chinese influence across Europe, told RFE/RL. "Now that someone has done it, others are more likely to follow."
Prague's Path Ahead
Pavel's shift on China and Taiwan marks a clear break with his predecessor, incumbent Czech President Milos Zeman, who will remain in office until March.
During Zeman's 10-year tenure -- divided over two five-year terms -- he courted stronger ties with China and toed a pro-Beijing line on many human rights issues in hopes of attracting greater Chinese investment. In a move that drew international attention and criticism at home, Zeman appointed Ye Jianming, a former chairman of China Energy Company, as his honorary economic adviser. The billionaire was detained in 2018 by Chinese authorities and his whereabouts are still unknown.
Kolar -- a political consultant who previously served as Prague's ambassador to Russia -- says Pavel is looking to align his foreign policy views with the Czech Republic's postcommunist tradition of backing democracy and human rights globally.
He says the support for Taiwan should be seen as part of a broader paradigm shift in Europe shaped by Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
On the campaign trail, Pavel backed strong European support for Ukraine and said his first foreign trip as president will be to Kyiv alongside Slovak President Zuzana Caputova. The invasion of Ukraine is "a reminder that European democracies need to be focused on China's aggression towards Taiwan," he said. "We need to show support now so that [Beijing] won't be tempted to use force later like Russia has."
Under the Czech Constitution, the presidency holds mostly ceremonial powers, but presidents can wield significant informal influence over key decisions, especially in foreign policy. The office remains separate from the government led by the prime minister, which holds formal power to govern and craft policy.
But unlike Zeman, Pavel's views on Taiwan, Russia, and other foreign policy issues align with Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala's coalition government, potentially ushering in a rare era of unity.
Taiwan, which is critical to global supply chains, has become a larger investor than China in the Czech Republic and Taiwanese companies continue to expand their links to Europe.
Taiwan produces over 90 percent of the world's semiconductors, which are crucial for manufacturing a variety of everyday and high-tech products that are vital to economies around the world.
"Taiwan understands that there is an opportunity now as Europe is in the process of rethinking its relationship with China," Zsuzsa Anna Ferenczy, a fellow at National Dong Hwa University in Taiwan and a former adviser to the European Parliament, told RFE/RL. "Individual member states in the EU are more willing to speak out and offer new forms of support for Taiwan. Taipei is hoping to harness that."
A New Reality In Central And Eastern Europe
In response to Pavel's phone call with Tsai, Beijing accused the Czech Republic of violating the "One China Principle," under which Beijing considers itself as the only legitimate government of China and views Taiwan as a breakaway province.
Only 13 countries and the Vatican have official diplomatic relations with Taiwan and recognize the island of 24 million people as an independent state. Many Western governments do not openly contest China's claim to Taiwan, but they do not support it either.
"It is in the interest of [the Czech Republic] to strengthen relations with Taiwan and other democratic partners in the Indo-Pacific region," Czech Foreign Minister Jan Lipavsky told Politico in a recent interview. "We have our own 'one China' policy. Nothing has changed."
Offering formal recognition to Taiwan is not in the cards for Prague or other EU countries. But analysts and officials acknowledge that countries in the bloc could take a bolder line toward Beijing and Taipei.
This shift has been brewing in the Czech Republic and across Central and Eastern Europe -- with the exception of Hungary -- for several years. Czech Senate Chairman Milos Vystrcil led a delegation to Taiwan in 2020 and the Czech and Slovak parliaments welcomed Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu for unprecedented visits in 2021.
Beijing's so-called "17+1" initiative -- China and 17 Central and Eastern Europe states -- has unraveled in recent years. Lithuania withdrew in 2021, and Estonia and Latvia followed suit after Russia's invasion of Ukraine and China's support for Moscow. Other members, such as the Czech Republic and Slovakia, have not formally left, but havedialed down their engagement with the format.
"Our relationship with China is under revision," Lipavsky told The New York Times in a February interview. "A new geopolitical reality has arisen."