China’s club for talking to Central Europe is dead, Czechs say

China’s exclusive club for engaging with Eastern and Central European countries is defunct, the Czech foreign minister told POLITICO on Tuesday.

Jan Lipavský’s comments position the Czechs firmly in the camp of the U.S., dealing a potentially devastating blow to the 11-year-old so-called 14+1 initiative, which Beijing once hoped would revive relations with former Soviet states.

Speaking after a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Lipavský said: “I thanked the U.S. on their strategic leadership on China. I assured Secretary Blinken that we are ready to work with them within the European framework. The 14+1 has neither substance nor future.”

Asked if Prague will formally withdraw, Lipavský added through a spokesman: “We are not an active member. We won’t speculate on any possible steps that we might choose to take.”

According to a readout from the U.S. State Department, Blinken and Lipavský “discussed shared concerns about the People’s Republic of China, as well as the importance of maintaining peace, stability and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific and beyond.”

Beijing founded the grouping in 2012, initially with 16 European countries, in an effort to rebuild ties with the formerly Soviet-controlled part of Europe. The group expanded to 17+1 when Greece joined, but shrank to 14+1 when Lithuania, followed by Estonia and Latvia, decided to drop out. The initiative has withered as Central European governments have grown increasingly wary of China as a result of Beijing’s alliance with Moscow even as Russia wages war in Ukraine.

Nine of the EU’s 27 countries remain in the club: Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Greece, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia. Five non-EU countries are also involved: Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Serbia.

For the Czechs in particular, the souring of relations even pre-dated the war. In 2020, Beijing decided to punish Czech piano exporters in retaliation for a visit by Czech lawmakers to the self-governing island of Taiwan, which China claims as its own.

Lipavský’s remarks signal a further step away from Beijing since former NATO General Petr Pavel became president in March. Pavel has called for a rethink on foreign policy and vowed to build a closer relationship with Taiwan instead of China.

Later this month, the EU’s foreign ministers are due to re-evaluate the bloc’s relations with China at a key meeting in Sweden. The EU is expected to call for a stronger focus on strategic competition and systemic rivalry, although it would continue highlighting the importance of working with China on issues like climate change or debt relief for developing countries.

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