On the evening of December 5, a delegation of 43 Slovak government officials, business representatives, and academics touched down at Taipei’s Taoyuan International Airport. The group, led by Slovak Deputy Economic Minister Karol Galek, represents the Central European country’s highest-level diplomatic visit to Taiwan since the opening of its Taipei representative office in 2003. Over the course of the six-day trip, the delegation met with leading Taiwanese officials, toured key research institutions, and signed nine memoranda of understanding (MOUs), primarily focused on trade and high-tech collaboration.
While the visit is certainly notable in its own right, it gains added geopolitical significance when viewed in the context of broader trends in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) countries’ approach to China and Taiwan.
Growing Slovak-Taiwan Ties
Though the recent Slovak delegation is perhaps the most visible instance of warming relations between Bratislava and Taipei, ties between the two have steadily grown over the past two years. In April 2020, amid the chaotic early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, Taiwan donated large amounts of personal protective equipment to Slovakia, including 700,000 Taiwan-manufactured face masks. This donation was later reciprocated by Slovakia, which announced in September 2021 that it would be providing 150,000 doses of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine to Taiwan, a significant increase from the 10,000 doses it had promised earlier in the year.
This expanding collaboration has been accompanied by a notable growth in economic relations. Over the first nine months of 2021, Slovakia-Taiwan bilateral trade increased 18.4 percent from the same period in 2020, reaching a total of over $250 million. Investment has also seen a significant increase during this period, as Slovakia has received over $560 million in Taiwanese investment, making it the second-largest recipient of Taiwanese investment in the EU. While the economic relationship between the two remains somewhat limited, these recent developments suggest that substantial growth is possible.
Over the past two months, this growing medical and economic cooperation has resulted in a rapid expansion of diplomatic contacts between Bratislava and Taipei. In October 2021, Taiwan sent a delegation of 66 government officials and business representatives to Slovakia, with the goal of building trade ties and collaborating on key industries. The group, led by Taiwan National Development Council Minister Kung Ming-hsin, conducted meetings with a range of Slovak officials, signed seven MOUs, and extended an invitation for Slovak officials to travel to Taiwan. Immediately following this trip, Taiwan Minister of Foreign Affairs Joseph Wu also visited Slovakia, where he gave a speech focused on post-pandemic cooperation between “like-minded” democracies. Together, these trips helped set the stage for last week’s Slovak delegation to Taiwan.
The composition and conduct of the Slovak delegation reflected this recent warming of Slovak-Taiwan ties. As several commentators have noted, the group arrived in Taiwan aboard an official government plane emblazoned with the Slovak flag, providing a sense of formality that would have been unthinkable in previous years. The delegation has also drawn attention for its membership, which included a wide range of high-ranking officials from Slovakia’s economic and foreign ministries. These officials used their platforms to affirm their country’s solidarity with Taiwan, with Galek stating that “Slovakia is ready to become an equal partner [of Taiwan], and not only in good but also in the hard times of the current pandemic situation.”
Mounting Challenges for China in Central and Eastern Europe
Taken in isolation, the visit of the Slovakian delegation to Taiwan would perhaps be little more than a minor annoyance for Beijing. However, when considered in the context of recent developments in Central and Eastern Europe, the visit takes on a far greater strategic importance, both for China and Taiwan.
For nearly a decade, the CEE region has been heavily influenced by the PRC, which established the Cooperation between China and Central and Eastern European Countries (also known as the 17/16+1) initiative in 2012. The grouping, which includes the majority of the CEE countries (as well as many Balkan and Baltic states), was initially marketed as a regional forum for multilateral cooperation, allowing members to gain access to China’s vast domestic market and secure Chinese foreign direct investment. In practice, however, the 17+1 has primarily served as a vector for Chinese influence in the region, granting Beijing the ability to exert pressure on individual states and shape opinion within the European Union. For Beijing, this arrangement has been largely favorable, allowing it to gain unprecedented access to an increasingly important region. For many other states involved with the grouping, however, the initiative has primarily resulted in disappointment. As the developments of the past two years have demonstrated, this frustration is beginning to boil over across the region.
Since the latter half of 2020, a growing list of 17+1 member states have shown a greater willingness to defy Beijing, potentially signaling broader discontent with PRC policy toward the region. In August of that year, a delegation of 89 Czech officials, including Senate President Milos Vystrcil and Prague Mayor Zdenek Hrib, made an unprecedented visit to Taiwan, despite widely publicized condemnation from Chinese leaders. Shortly after this trip, Christoph Heusgen, Germany’s then-Ambassador to the United Nations, issued a joint statement on behalf of 39 countries criticizing the PRC’s human rights abuses in Xinjiang and Hong Kong. Notably, the list of states expressing concern included 11 members of the 17+1.
This regional criticism of Beijing has only grown more pronounced in 2021, as China’s rising authoritarianism and perceived poor handling of the COVID-19 pandemic have soured opinions of the People’s Republic across Europe. In February of this year, China sought to bolster its position in Europe by having General Secretary Xi Jinping lead the 2021 17+1 Leader’s Summit, a task typically handled by Prime Minister Li Keqiang. Despite this grand gesture, the leaders of six 17+1 member states – Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, and Slovenia – opted to skip the meeting, despite the virtual format, in what was widely interpreted as a rebuke of the initiative.
Then, in May 2021, Lithuania delivered another significant blow to the 17+1, officially withdrawing from the grouping and subsequently expanding ties with Taiwan. In justifying the move, Lithuanian leaders argued that the arrangement had proven to be ineffective and unproductive. Building on this, Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis urged other EU states to pull out of the initiative, arguing that “the EU is strongest when all 27 member states act together.” While Beijing has forcefully criticized this decision – going so far as to sever all trade links with Lithuania – Vilnius has thus far been undeterred. Though the PRC retains several staunch CEE supporters such as Hungary and Serbia, its fortunes in the region seem to be diminishing.
As these recent developments have demonstrated, the Slovak delegation to Taiwan is no isolated incident. Rather, it appears to be the latest display of rising discontent with Chinese policy in Central and Eastern Europe. For Taiwan, the visit presents numerous opportunities, allowing Taipei to make critical inroads in a region long dominated by its cross-strait rival. For the PRC, however, Slovakia’s outreach to Taiwan represents a significant blow to its European aspirations, suggesting that the 17+1 initiative may no longer be an effective means of exerting influence in the CEE region.