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In early 2020, a frightened whistleblower handed me a copy of a Chinese diplomatic note. It was an official Chinese embassy document directly threatening Czech senate president Jaroslav Kubera with commercial retaliations if he proceeded in leading a business delegation to Taiwan. Shockingly, Beijing named three Czech companies doing business in China that it was willing to crush if Kubera went forward with the planned delegation. Subsequent media coverage of this attempted blackmail caused a major political scandal, and Kubera passed away before he could make the trip. Later that year, his successor and 90 businesspeople visited Taiwan—the first high-level visit of a European state representative to one of Asia’s most successful democracies.
This story of Beijing’s attempted coercion and bullying of a Central European country of 10 million people is only a small episode in the increasingly severe competition between China and a growing number of democratic states. Free societies around the world are being infiltrated and squeezed by the Chinese Communist Party’s aggressive and totalitarian regime. It took us time to get here, but we understand it now.
The big game is clear. We are witnessing the beginning of the CCP’s global struggle for dominance. A simple look at the map tells the story: Beijing’s totalitarian leaders want to conquer and subdue the free and sovereign island of Taiwan for the same reasons Russia invades and murders the people of Ukraine or Georgia.
I lead a 28-person team at an independent Prague-based think tank that shines light on Russian and Chinese hostile influence operations. The CCP is very active in the Czech Republic. Following a 2018 declaration by the Czech government’s cyber agency that tech giants Huawei and ZTE constituted national security threats, the CCP undertook a brutal interference campaign that targeted various political institutions. As part of this retaliation, China and its proxies attempted to sabotage the cyber agency by pushing for the firing of its director. China’s bullying was so intense that U.S. senator Marco Rubio called out a multi-billion-dollar company for its seedy role as Beijing’s de facto fixer and lobbyist in Prague. Such is the worldwide scope of 21st-century geopolitical competition.
Our think tank, which just opened a branch office in Taipei, aims to help Czechs and other Europeans appreciate the value of an ally like Taiwan, the threat to its people’s freedom that China poses and what to do about it. Taiwan is our first line of defense against Chinese aggression in the same way Ukraine is facing ongoing Russian military hostilities.
Two types of deterrence can persuade the Chinese leadership not to invade Taiwan. The first is military deterrence provided by the United States, and hopefully also Japan and Australia. The second is political and economic deterrence. This is the practical role European countries can play; they can make sure the CCP knows an invasion of Taiwan would have major political and economic costs for China in Europe.
A successful European deterrence strategy would remind Chinese leadership of what followed the 2014 Russian invasion of Ukraine—meaning structurally targeted sanctions on oligarchs and economic sectors, and mid-level international diplomatic isolation of the invader. An unsuccessful European deterrence strategy would look more like the aftermath of the 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia: no systematic sanctions, no diplomatic isolation, but business as usual and increased Western attempts to appease the aggressor. Today, we are closer to that second scenario. As a Czech citizen, the status quo looks to me like the 1938 Munich Agreement when the democratic powers sold parts of Czechoslovakia to Adolf Hitler in the mistaken hope that it would prevent war.