23rd Sep 2023


An interesting Czech vs Slovak split over China policy

  • Slovakia has avoided a real debate about its relationship, economic and political, with China, straddling between more hawkish voices in its neighbourhood, most prominently Czech and Lithuanian ones, and the China doves in countries such as Hungary (Photo: Jean Beller)
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Just a few weeks after the speaker of the lower house of Czech Parliament, Markéta Pekarová-Adamová, led a 150-strong delegation to Taiwan, her Slovak counterpart, Boris Kollár, found himself on an official visit to China from 16-20 April. It may matter more than you think.

Czechs and Slovaks share a common history and cultural ties, but their foreign policy outlooks are not always in sync. In the Czech Republic, the extravagant promises of Chinese investment never materialised and the former president Miloš Zeman's sycophancy toward Xi Jinping, whom he hosted at a extravagant state visit in 2016, provoked a wide revulsion.

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In contrast, Slovakia has avoided a real debate about its relationship, economic and political, with China, straddling between more hawkish voices in its neighbourhood, most prominently Czech and Lithuanian ones, and the China doves in countries such as Hungary.

Because of Kollár's trip, Slovaks might finally have a conversation about the subject. That said, their answer to the China question may not be to the liking of those who would are hoping for a more unified European voice, ideally aligned with the emerging American consensus.

No controversial topics seem to have been raised at Kollár's official meetings in Beijing, including with China's vice president Han Zheng and with Zhao Leji, the head National People's Congress and the third-ranking member of the Politburo Standing Committee, which conveys a sense of Slovak deference.

Given that Slovakia is heading for an early election in September, Kollár seems understandably more interested in showcasing promises of new Chinese investment in the country.

It was announced during the visit that Leyard, a Chinese manufacturer of LED screens, was expanding its Slovak operations. Kollár also urged China Railways to consider Slovakia as a logistical and transit hub for its routes into the EU. Mentioning the Belt-and-Road high-speed railway connecting Budapest and Belgrade, he invited Chinese executives to Slovakia to consider connecting the country's capital with the Eastern city of Košice. Košice's outskirts, by the way, are already gearing up to host a new electric vehicle plant built by Volvo, a company under Chinese control.

There are Slovaks, including in Kollár's governing coalition, who are wary of deeper economic ties with China. It is unlikely, however, that those will control the levers of power for much longer. Like its leader, Kollár's party "Sme Rodina" [We Are Family] is a purely transactional, populist grouping untethered to any governing principles — but with a keen sense of where public opinion is moving.

It is not a coincidence that the speaker was accompanied on his visit by parliamentarians from opposition parties, currently polling far ahead of Kollár's current coalition partners. In particular, the presumptive winner of the election, "Smer," [Direction] finds itself under an increasingly unhinged leadership of the former prime minister Robert Fico, who professes his admiration for Viktor Orbán and uses every occasion to lambast the United States, Nato, and the European Union.

While readying for his return to office, Fico has led the charge against Slovakia's admirable assistance to Ukraine, including against the decision to provide its entire fleet of MiG-29 fighters to Ukrainian Armed Forces. Polling places Slovakia consistently among the most pro-Russian and anti-Western countries of the region — one survey found that a plurality of Slovaks (42 percent) blamed Nato for the war.

That stands in sharp contrast with the neighbouring Czech Republic, where essentially the entire political class and public opinion firmly back Ukraine in the war.

As for China, it is fair to say that most Slovak voters have not given its human rights record, predatory economic practices, or belligerence in the Indo-Pacific a second thought. For a sizeable group of them, however, showing a middle finger to Washington by embracing Beijing is attractive in its own right — in addition to whatever economic benefits deeper cooperation with China might provide.

By going to Beijing, Kollár might be onto a political winner — at least in the short term, until it becomes clear that China routinely overpromises and underdelivers.

If his intuition is right, however, it is more likely than not that the new government will rush ahead to forge new ties with China, possibly even bringing Slovakia into the Belt and Road Initiative.

Doing so will generate little economic benefits to Slovakia but it is bound to fracture any hope of an emerging agreement over the Chinese challenge in Central and Eastern Europe — and by extension in Europe at large.

Author bio

Dalibor Rohac is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington DC.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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