Chinese, Czech presidents forge strategic partnership on Prague visit

Reuters News
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Posted: Mar 29, 2016 8:31 AM

By Jason Hovet and Jan Lopatka

PRAGUE (Reuters) - China's President Xi Jinping and his Czech counterpart Milos Zeman signed an agreement on a strategic partnership on Tuesday, meant to step up business ties and investments.

Zeman has been keen to forge stronger ties with China and Russia since his election in 2013, rather than with the ex-communist country's partners in NATO and the European Union, although the Czech government not the president is chiefly responsible for foreign policy.

EU relations with both Beijing and Moscow are tainted by disputes over human rights.

The partnership agreement puts the Czechs among about 15 other European countries that have similar ties.

Xi was given a special welcome to mark the first ever visit of a Chinese leader, including a dinner at the presidential residence and 21 artillery salvos in a ceremony at the historic Prague Castle, courtesies not extended to other visitors.

But it drew protests from opposition parties and human rights activists.

Police on Monday detained more than a dozen people who replaced Chinese flags on the main road from Prague airport to the city center with those of Chinese-ruled Tibet. There was a scuffle between pro-Tibet activists and groups of Chinese supporters.

Two demonstrations by activists were called on Tuesday outside Prague's Lichtenstein Palace, where Xi is to meet Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka, and at the Prague Castle.

Czech government officials told Reuters the agreement does not deviate from standard EU language on human rights, diplomatic or economic relations, and reflected Czech interests in continued business relations with Taiwan, which China sees as a wayward province.

The Czechs are hoping to become a financial and air travel hub in central Europe for China, where Czech firms such as financial group PPF and Volkswagen's Skoda Auto have been active.

Chinese investments in the Czech republic have so far included several acquisitions of financial, airline and brewery companies by a company called CEFC China Energy, whose ownership has not been disclosed.

"I wish that Czech Republic becomes ... an entry gate for the People's Republic of China to the European Union," he said.

While the Czechs maintain the EU line on China, Zeman has made gestures others have not. Zeman attended a military parade in Beijing last September marking the end of World War Two, the only Western leader to do so.

(Editing by David Holmes)