TAIPEI – Defying anger from China, the president of the Czech Republic’s Senate addressed Taiwan’s legislature on Tuesday, offering a strong rebuke of authoritarian politics and Beijing’s increasingly aggressive foreign policy.
Milos Vystrcil concluded a speech that underscored shared democratic values by proclaiming in Mandarin that “I am Taiwanese,” a throwback to former U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s famed 1963 anti-communist speech in a then-divided Berlin in which he declared he was a Berliner.
Beijing is furious about the Czech delegation’s visit, with the foreign ministry summoning the Czech Republic’s ambassador to lodge stern representations on Monday and saying the visit amounted to “flagrant support of Taiwan independence.”
China claims Taiwan as its own territory and strongly objects to any official contact between other countries and the self-governing island.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying condemned Vystrcil's visit, saying, "he is openly supporting the separatist forces and separatist activities in Taiwan that seriously violate China’s sovereignty and China’s internal affairs.”
She echoed a warning from Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who said in Europe on Monday that “the Chinese government and people will not sit by and let this go unchecked, and will definitely make them pay a heavy price for their short-sighted behavior and political opportunism.”
Following meetings in Berlin with Wang, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, whose country holds the European Union's rotating presidency, said he had been in touch with his Czech colleague about the Senate president’s visit.
“Europeans operate in foreign and security policy very closely with one another and we treat our international partners with respect, and we expect that from them as well,” Maas said. “Threats are not a part of that.”
Wang defended China’s response, saying that the Czech delegation was “mixing in China’s internal affairs.”
“China must react adequately,” he said through a translator. “There is only one China in the world and Taiwan is a part of China.”
In his address, Vystrcil directly referenced Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech, and emphasized democratic freedoms embraced since the Czech Republic threw off communist rule at the end of the Cold War and Taiwan emerged from martial law at the end of the 1980s.
“In 1963, the American president JFK, in his famous speech ‘I’m a Berliner,’ clearly opposed communism and political oppression and supported the people of West Berlin,” Vystrcil said. “He said ‘Freedom is indivisible, and when one man is enslaved, all are not free.'"
“Please let me use the same manner to express my support to the people of Taiwan: I’m a Taiwanese,” he said, speaking the last phrase in Mandarin Chinese.
Vystrcil's visit follows a spat last year between Beijing and Prague, the Czech Republic's capital. The two cities ended a sister-cities agreement because Beijing had wanted Prague to agree to the “one-China” principle, which is China’s stance that Taiwan is a part of its territory.
The visit is also in direct opposition to Czech President Milos Zeman, who has taken strongly pro-China views. Vystrcil is to meet Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-Wen later in the week.
Amid China's campaign of diplomatic isolation and military threats, Taiwan has been blocked from participating in major international forums and now has just 15 formal allies. Despite the lack of official ties, the U.S. remains Taiwan's closest partner and source of weaponry to counter China's threat to bring the island under its control by military means.
Following his speech, Vystrcil told reporters that his visit was consistent with Prague's interpretation of the “one-China policy" and wasn't intended as an affront to Beijing.
“And something I wish to emphasize is that we are in no way opposing mutual benefits and equal relations with the People’s Republic of China as much as we want to have mutual benefits and equal relations with Taiwan,” Vystrcil said.
Taiwanese parliamentary Speaker Yu Shyi-kun said the Czech delegation's visit was an affirmation of Taiwan's continued presence on the world stage as well as a repudiation of authoritarianism.
“On one hand, (Vystrcil's) visit is proof of the existence of Taiwan. Proof to the world that Taiwan exists," Yu said.
“At the same time, the visit makes me feel that, no matter whether it be the governments and peoples of the Czech Republic or Taiwan, we all have one thing in common, we both fight against an authoritarian regime and mutually create a future.”
In Prague, Foreign Minister Tomas Petricek told Czech public television Tuesday the government informed China that no change had been made in national policy regarding its relationship with Taiwan. Petricek however, did take note of China's comments on Vystrcil's visit.
“I believe that the trip of Mr. Vystrcil will not harm our relations with China. We want to continue to work on our strategic dialogue but we cannot agree and have to protest at a moment when we can hear such strong statements,” Petricek said.
Associated Press journalists Johnson Lai in Taipei, Taiwan, and David Rising in Berlin contributed to this report.