Xi Jinping’s Prague trip highlighted the limits to China’s soft power

Xi Jinping’s ( 習近平 ) three-day stopover in Prague on his way to Washington may have been a mere side story overshadowed by the Chinese president’s business in the US, but Xi’s visit to the Czech Republic deserves some attention as it indicates Beijing’s approach towards the EU in general. It also offers insight into the limits of Beijing’s soft power, relying mostly on economic incentives and undermined by its own sense of insecurity.

習近平在前往華盛頓途中於布拉格停留三日,可能只是他訪美行程中的一段小插曲,但習近平訪問捷克共和國,則值得注意,因為這體現了中國對歐盟的整體取態,也讓人得以一窺中國軟實力的界限,這種軟實力主要靠經濟甜頭存在,同時受到自身不安全感的影響。

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Image Credit: Blesk – Mária Rušinová

Xi’s arrival in Prague on March 28 marked a historical first visit of a Chinese president to the Czech Republic or Czechoslovakia. It was also the only stop on Xi’s way to the US. So why now?

3月28日,習近平抵達布拉格,標誌著中國首次有國家主席到訪捷克共和國或捷克斯洛伐克。捷克也是習近平這次訪美途中唯一訪問的外國。為什麼是現在呢?

The current and previous Czech governments have been eager to increase Prague’s engagement with Beijing, decrease significant trade deficit and invite Chinese investments. In a pursuit of greater Chinese interest, Czech governments have adopted an approach of downplaying promotion of human rights and democracy, a mainstay of Czech foreign policy since the fall of communist regime in 1989. Czech President Milos Zeman’s newly discovered interest in China helps too. In this particular instance, Xi’s visit was an appreciation of Zeman’s attendance of Victory Day celebrations in Beijing last September, where Zeman was present as the only EU head of state.

現屆和前屆捷克政府都熱衷於增加與北京的互動,減少嚴重的貿易逆差,並邀請中國對捷克投資。為了分得更多中國紅利,捷克政府壓低了對人權和民主的推廣聲浪。自1989年共產主義政權倒台以來,這種做法一直是捷克外交政策的支柱。捷克總統Milos Zeman最近發現的中國好處也有幫助。在這一方面,習近平的到訪是對Zeman出席去年9月中國大閱兵的“回禮”,當時,Zeman是唯一出席大閱兵的歐盟國家元首。

Thus, China is seizing the window of opportunity provided by Beijing-friendly gatekeepers and the lack of a coherent long-term China strategy. In recent years, European countries appeared to emphasise short-term economic benefits and financial promises over long-term vision on how to address China’s growing prominence. Hence, the strategic importance of Xi’s visit goes beyond its bilateral relations with the Czechs. Beijing has learned from Russia in its dealings with the Europeans; the effectiveness of a divide-and-conquer strategy is perhaps the most important lesson. Moreover, unlike Moscow, Beijing has the economic wherewithal to pursue a softer approach, seizing the opportunity of many in Europe looking towards Beijing as a saviour of their faltering economies.

因此,中國正抓住這個機遇窗口。這個窗口一方面是親北京的歐盟“守門人”提供的,另一方面也是歐盟缺乏長期連貫對華政策所致。近年,歐盟國家似乎在強調更短期經濟利益和資金承諾,而不是長遠要如何應對中國日益突出的地位。因此,習近平到訪的戰略重要性遠超中捷雙邊關係。中國政府已經從俄羅斯那裡學到了要如何應對歐洲人,而分化戰術的有效性可能是其中最重要的一課。除此以外,和莫斯科方面不同,北京方面有經濟實力,可以追求更軟性的手段,抓住許多歐洲國家都視北京為他們衰退經濟的“救世主”的機遇。

However, there are inherent limits to China’s European outreach. While EU’s institutional design makes it slow to react to new circumstances, it is equally difficult to change already agreed-upon policies. The longevity of an arms sales embargo imposed on China in the aftermath of the Tiananmen massacre is a case in point. Beijing might be trying to remove the Czech Republic as one of the countries that have so far insisted on keeping the embargo in place. However, it is unlikely that Beijing could succeed to break the embargo.

然而,中國的對歐戰略有其內在限制。雖然歐盟的機制設計使之對新情況反應緩慢,但同時也讓挑戰已經達成共識的政策變得很困難,一個例子是1989年之後歐洲對中國實施的武器禁售至今未改。中國政府可能試圖讓捷克停止武器禁售。不過,中國不太可能成功打破整個禁令。

Nor will China easily break long-standing foreign policy positions. Beijing tried to include specific references to Taiwan and Tibet in the text of the strategic partnership agreement, but Czech negotiators stood their ground and stuck to the usual “One China” reference without specifying what “One China” means, an ambiguous approach that allows European states to maintain semi-official relations with Taiwan.

中國也難以打破歐盟長期以來的外交立場。北京方面試圖在戰略夥伴協議中加入有關台灣和西藏的內容,但捷克的談判人員堅持立場,只提到一般常用的“一個中國”,而沒有特別指明“一個中國”的涵義,這種含糊取態讓歐盟國家可以與台灣保持半官方的關係。

The Czech trip also demonstrated embedded insecurity in China’s effort to secure positive image. While every country cares about its image, others do not typically mobilise large number of its nationals who reside or travel to a host country to ostensibly welcome their leader, but in reality work to counter other demonstrators. Local authorities, anxious not to give opportunity to the Chinese delegation to express discomfort, are eager to give a free pass to Chinese protesters while restricting rights of their own nationals. And that is exactly what happened in Prague last week. Needless to say, this rather tainted Xi’s visit instead of creating positive image.

捷克之行也顯示了中國努力在國際上建立積極形象的那種不安全感。雖然所有國家都在乎自己的國際形象,其他國家不會特別動員居住在某國外國,或剛好在這個外國旅行的國人來做出歡迎本國領袖到訪的樣子,而同時採取行動攔阻示威者。緊張於不讓中國代表團有機會發牢騷的當地政府,則急於讓中國示威者無障礙通行,而同時限制本地人的權利。上週在布拉格就是發生了這樣的事情。不必多言,這對於習近平到訪中積極形象的構築百害而無一利。

Beijing should not expect that throwing money at overly eager Europeans will significantly alter the bigger picture. The list of deals agreed upon in Prague reveals that Beijing’s importance for Prague still remain marginal. A few years from now, the various investment pledges and memoranda of understanding may or may not materialise. However, the bitter taste from the events surrounding Xi’s visit won’t fade away that soon.

中國政府不應該認為,向過分渴求的歐洲人大撒金錢就能大大改變這一處境。在布拉格達成的協議的清單說明,中國對於捷克的重要性依然有限。今後幾年,各種投資承諾和諒解備忘錄可能會也可能不會落實。然而,習近平到訪期間發生的種種事件所帶來的苦澀,將不會迅速消散。

This piece was originally published in the South China Morning Post on April 4, 2016 (中文版). Reproduced with permission.

Michal Thim is a Taiwan specialist, a Research Fellow at the Prague-based think-tank Association for International Affairs, a member of CIMSEC, and an Asia-Pacific Desk Contributing Analyst for Wikistrat. Michal tweets @michalthim.

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