A visit by the Dalai Lama to Prague this week has turned into a hot political issue. A joint statement by key politicians, reassuring Beijing of the country’s continued pro-China orientation, has evoked a storm of protests and accusations of “uncalled for, shameful servility“.
The Czech Republic’s strong pro-China-orientation and the close ties that have evolved in developing a strategic partnership with the country have been a matter of dispute on the domestic scene for some time. The latest visit by the Tibetan spiritual leader and his meetings with a number of ministers and lawmakers underscored some of the implications of the deepening ties between Prague and Beijing – resulting in a reprimand from the Chinese Foreign Ministry and speedy reassurances from Prague, which have left many asking just how far the government is prepared to go in the interest of economic diplomacy.
Meetings between the Dalai Lama and Culture Minister Daniel Herman, Deputy Prime Minister Pavel Bělobrádek and the deputy speakers of the upper and lower chambers – labelled as private – inevitably raised hackles in Beijing. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said the Dalai Lama was in Prague to engage in “anti-China-separatist activities” and expressed the hope that the Czech government would take steps to maintain “the present good momentum in Sino-Czech relations.” The Chinese ambassador to Prague met with the Czech president’s chief foreign policy adviser and just hours later the president, prime minister and speakers of both houses of parliament issued a rare joint statement stressing that Tibet is regarded as an integral part of China and the meetings between some Czech politicians and the Tibetan spiritual leader do not signal a change in the country’s official policy line in relations with China.
The statement evoked a storm of protests from politicians and academics. Fifty lawmakers promptly met with the Dalai Lama in a show of defiance to the official policy line and half the country’s universities hoisted Tibetan flags in a show of solidarity. Leader of the opposition Civic Democrats Petr Fiala:
“This statement was uncalled-for, undignified and servile. I have no idea why our leaders felt the need to make it.”
Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka defended the statement, drafted by the Foreign Ministry, saying it fully reflected the government’s foreign policy line in relations with China.
“Everyone has the right to meet who they want. I see no problem with that. But on the other hand, the country’s leaders also have the right to issue a statement confirming the basic principles of our foreign policy line with respect to China.”
According to senior career diplomat Petr Kolář, China very likely exerted strong pressure on Prague, allegedly threatening to pull out of the 16+1 talks scheduled to take place in the Czech capital next year. He says the government's response was overhasty and unecessary.
“Had the Czech government stood its ground, we would have seen some turbulence in bilateral relations. China has its own vested interests in Europe. It would have found a way to digest this minor incident and the 16+1 meeting would have taken place. It is in their interests as well as in ours.”
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