Jan Zahradil: We must seek a new balance of power

Published: 8. 10. 2021
Author: Lubor Winter
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China is quickly becoming the new world economic power. What are our relations, or more precisely EU relations, with this new superpower? That was the focus of our discussion with MEP Jan Zahradil.

It took seven years before the EU and China reached an accord regarding the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) in 2020. It should facilitate mutual access to both regions’ markets for investors. On May 20, 2021, the European Parliament voted to suspend ratification efforts of the agreement due to the sanctions that both parties have imposed upon the other. What can you tell us about the current state of EU-China relations in this context?

It is not good. The EU, especially the Council and the European Commission, had a very mild, pragmatic policy towards China for a long time. It mostly concerned itself with trade and economic relations. Now, it seems that the European Parliament has gone into full-on confrontation mode, especially in regards to human rights, which is further exacerbated by the geopolitical contest between China and the US. The odd thing is that this push for confrontation originates mostly from the left this time, from the rigid ideologists of the Green faction. Certain news agencies are also playing a part, putting their own schemes in motion through well-connected journalists and nongovernmental organizations. Even throughout 2020, we could see the efforts to create artificial “espionage scandals” and smear campaigns in Brussels. The same can be seen in Czechia, after all. It creates a toxic and paranoid feeling leading to a “finger-pointing frenzy”, which makes analyzing the situation in a calm and realistic manner nearly impossible. We cannot keep going like this.

When do you think the EU-Chinese relations will go back to normal? After all, this is not an issue that would have a significant impact on the international situation.

I think it will take a few years, unfortunately. Mutual sanctions, or more precisely the mutual injunctions of specific people will not stop overnight. Officially, the EU has always subscribed to a multipolar interpretation of international relations. However, that means having to come to terms with the existence of other socio-political models, including the authoritarian ones, and trying to coexist with them reasonably, not trying to exacerbate the situation. What’s more, after the debacle of the Western powers in Afghanistan, it is quite clear that the so-called export of democracy is over and done with. We must seek a new balance of power, a new modus vivendi, a new status quo. Spheres of influence are getting carved up and redistributed, the Euro-Atlantic feeling of moral superiority has taken a beating, and the rest of the world can see this. We need empathy, patience, negotiation, not conflict. I believe that many people in the EU realize this.

The cause of this conflict was the Union’s call for China to stop violating human rights in the Xinjiang province – mainly the rights of the local Uyghur Muslims. Is it a good idea to group together economic relations with the concept of human rights, which stems from western traditions? China, as well as other countries, keep pointing out that they have their own interpretation of human rights and that there is no reason why they should abide by the western way of things...

The Uyghur issue was a very handy baton to pummel China with, in regards to international relations. I am curious to see if and how things will change after the islamization of Afghanistan, where we can already see the Taliban and the Islamic State coming to a head.  The Xinjiang province shares a border with Afghanistan, however short it may be. This will give China ample justification for its fear of the radicalization of Afghan Muslims, and the subsequent measures it may take to suppress its development. I expect China to increase its presence in the region and to seek cooperation with Afghanistan’s neighbors – especially the republics of Central Asia – in order to stabilize the situation. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization may also come into play, it is a union between China, India, Russia, and other countries, where Afghanistan was an observer state. It is crystal clear that this will strengthen China’s position in not having to so ardently justify its own socio-political structure.

It seems that by refusing to ratify the CAI deal, the EU has aligned itself with the stance of the USA, which is taking much more severe actions towards China, having identified it as its main geopolitical rival. Or do you see things differently?

Yes, that is indeed the case. The USA is Europe’s transatlantic ally, but that does not mean we have to constantly follow their lead. I feel that the EU should not parrot the US foreign policy in regards to China, it should strive for its own, autonomous stance. Unlike the US, we are not competing with China to be the number one geopolitical power. I am convinced that we should be more clear and vocal about this, especially after what happened in Afghanistan.

China has been a major talking point in Czechia as well. Mostly due to certain statements and actions of President Zeman, and the subsequent reactions of certain other Czech politicians to the President’s words and behaviour. Things are going to and fro, so to speak, and it is not exactly helping Czech-Chinese relations. What adjustments would you suggest to the Czech policy towards China?

The issues related to China going on in Czechia are a show of tragic incompetence. Diplomatic restraint and pragmatism have vanished. This important relationship has become a tool for local political infighting. President Zeman, who likes to provoke people and add fuel to the fire, has pushed things in a specific direction. The opposition acted no better, however, taking Zeman’s bait and jabbing at him from the other end of the spectrum. We seem to be the only EU country engaging in this kind of back and forth politics. There is no reason to unilaterally damage diplomatic relations with one of our partners, which is exactly what we have managed to do. I feel that Czechia has lost a lot of political credit abroad thanks to that. A few years down the line, we might be left scratching our heads, when we realize that we were playing the role of the useful idiot all along in this show. But it will be far too late.

Uyghurs protesting in front of the Chinese Consulate in Istanbul (15. 12. 2019). While the Uyghurs insist that their basic human rights are being violated, China points out that many Uyghurs are Islamic radicals, posing a serious threat to the country.


Jan Zahradil, M.Sc. (born March 20, 1963, in Prague) is a Czech and European politician. He is currently an MEP for the ODS.

He graduated from the University of Chemistry and Technology, Prague.

After the Velvet Revolution, he was elected as MP into the Czechoslovakian Federal Assembly for the Občanské Fórum (Citizen’s Forum), and later for the ODS.

In 1998, he became an MP in the Czech Parliament and was also the ODS Shadow Minister of Foreign Affairs up until 2006.

#He was elected as European MP in 2004. Leading the ODS ticket, he was re-elected in the European Parliament elections in 2009. Zahradil co-founded the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) faction and became the vice-chair of this newly formed Eurorealist group. In March 2011, he was elected the ECR Chairman. He has been a member of European committees for international trade, development policy, and human rights.

In the current election term, he continues to work as vice-chair in the European Parliament Committee on International Trade.

Among other things, President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyden, spoke about the Comprehensive Agreement on Investments being ready for ratification during the online meeting of European and Chinese leaders on December 30, 2020.


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