Chinese, Czech presidents forge strategic partnership on Prague visit

PRAGUE (Reuters) - Chinese President Xi Jin ping and Czech counterpart Milos Zeman signed an agreement on a strategic partnership on Tuesday aimed at stepping up business ties and investments.

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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 dogged by disputes over human rights.

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

And Xi was given a special welcome to mark the first 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.

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

“I would like the Czech Republic to become ... an entry gate for the People’s Republic of China to the European Union,” Zeman said at the dinner of welcome.

His warm attitude marked a contrast with the Czech Republic’s first post-communist president, Vaclav Havel, a Soviet-era dissident and personal friend of the Dalai Lama, the exiled spiritual leader of Chinese-ruled Tibet.

The special treatment accorded to Xi sparked protests. About 500 people, some waving flags of Tibet and Taiwan, gathered in a downtown park next to where Xi was meeting Czech government officials, and later marched towards the Prague Castle, cordoned off by police.

“I don’t like the turning of our politicians towards the East, that Chinese money is buying power and influence here,” said 20-year old student Jan Deutsch.

On Monday, there was a scuffle between protesters and groups of Chinese supporters who were brought by buses to welcome Xi on the way from the Prague airport.

Czech government officials told Reuters the partnership agreement did 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.

($1 = 24.1910 Czech crowns)

Additional reporting by Robert Muller; Editing by David Holmes