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Czech president-elect says west must accept China is ‘not friendly’

The Czech president-elect called on EU countries to give up any illusions about China, saying that his country would no longer “act like an ostrich” because of its diverging interests with Beijing.

Petr Pavel’s warning came just days after the retired NATO commander won an election victory in the Czech Republic, decisively defeating his populist opponent with an Atlanticist pro-European platform.

One of Pavel’s first steps was to counter what he sees as dangerous misconceptions about China, which he claims were exposed by Beijing’s unwillingness to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“Here’s what we need to be clear about: China and its regime are not currently a friendly country, they are incompatible with Western democracies in their strategic goals and principles,” Pavel said in an interview with the Financial Times. “It’s just a fact that we have to acknowledge.”

Despite warnings of possible retaliation, Paul on Monday became the first elected European head of state to speak to Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen. Pavel said that the Czech Republic would get more economic benefits from Taiwan than from China, and “we will not act like ostriches to hide this reality.”

After Pavel’s phone call with Cai, China came out with a strong reaction on Tuesday and urged Prague to change course to avoid “irreparable damage” to the relationship. Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning said Paul “ignored China’s repeated attempts to dissuade him” and “stubbornly crossed China’s red line.”

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen had a telephone conversation with Czech President-elect Petr Pavel on Monday.

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen speaks on the phone with Czech President-elect Petr Pavel on Monday in a photo released by Taiwan’s Presidential Office © Taiwan Presidential Office/AP

Beijing, which demands that other countries also treat Taiwan as if it were part of China, has punished Lithuania for its pro-Taipei stance by purposefully restricting its exports. In December, the EU accepted China into the World Trade Organization because of a quarrel with Lithuania.

But such dangers did not prevent Paul from expressing his opinion. “I know about some. . . potential threats, but at the same time, I do not see a fundamental violation of relations between the Czech Republic and China,” he said.

According to Pavel, the phone call was initiated by Taiwan. But he is willing to meet Tsai at some stage and wants closer ties with Taiwan. “Today, Taiwan is without a doubt a microchip superpower,” he said. The speaker of the lower house of the Czech parliament is due to visit Taipei in March, and Pavel said the trip should bring “some new ideas on how to expand our cooperation.”

Explaining his worldview, Pavlo argued that there was “definitely a lesson to be learned” from Beijing’s inability to rein in Moscow in connection with its invasion of Ukraine. “Undoubtedly, China had a chance to strongly influence the decisions of Russia. [but] did not take advantage of this opportunity. They stayed away.”

When Pavel takes office in March, it will mean a complete change in approach from his predecessor, Milos Zeman, a political veteran who supported Russia and praised how China has “stabilized” its society. Zeman turned his back on President Vladimir Putin only after Russia’s all-out assault on Ukraine last February.

During his two terms in office, Zeman pushed for Prague to become “China’s gateway to Europe,” but much of the Chinese investment promised by Zeman never materialized.

Pavel is also known as a political rookie who made a career in the military, rising to the rank of general before taking over as chairman of the NATO military committee between 2015 and 2018. In his first election campaign, he defeated billionaire Andriy Babish, a Zeman-backed former prime minister, in a second round of voting over the weekend.

General Petr Pavel (left) with other NATO military leaders at the alliance's headquarters in Brussels in 2015.

General Piotr Pavel (left) with other NATO commanders at the alliance headquarters in Brussels in 2015. © Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Pavel said that within the EU he sees opportunities for the development of the Visegrad Four alliance between his country, Slovakia, Poland and Hungary, although he expressed concern about Viktor Orban’s control over Budapest.

He noted Orban’s recent expulsion of officers who were said to have more NATO ties than the Hungarian leader’s own Russophile views. “What I have seen in Hungary in recent years is a gradual concentration of power around Viktor Orban and the restriction of all those who hold a different opinion,” Pavel said. The firing of officers “is a continuation,” he added.

Pavlo predicts that the first German-made Leopard tanks could be delivered to Ukraine “in the coming weeks,” saying they will mostly come from Poland and other countries in the region.

He sees a fight over tanks between NATO allies, demonstrating how Ukraine’s weapons policy can change when it comes to fighter jets.

“Months ago no one [expected] that there will be a broad agreement to send tanks, and now we have an obligation to send more than 300 tanks,” he said. “Therefore, I would not say so strictly which zones will be prohibited and which will be open. It will depend on the situation on the battlefield.”

Additional coverage by Katherine Hill in Taipei

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