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China visit marks Czech ‘vulnerability’: Analyst

Chinese President Xi Jinping's official visit to the Czech Republic this week is expected to solidify relations between the two countries after years of political antagonism over human rights abuse claims.

But, while Beijing might be hailing it as a symbolic victory, one analyst told CNBC that it signals Prague's economic vulnerabilities.

Jinping's arrival in Prague Monday marked the first ever visit by a Chinese head of state to the country and comes amid a political pivot by the Czech President Milos Zeman.

Francois Godement, a director of the Asia and China program at the European Council for Foreign Relations (ECFR) think tank, told CNBC by phone Tuesday that while the visit is largely symbolic, it was an opportunity "too good for China to miss."


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President Zeman's pro-China policies are a notable departure from those advocated by the late former president Vaclav Havel, who became known for supporting Chinese dissidents and frequently welcoming the Tibetan spiritual leader Dalai Lama during his time in office.

"The Czechs were long the most tenacious advocates of human rights in China," Godemont said. However, since Zemen took power in 2013, the Czech Republic has been "insidiously courting China as an economic partner," he explained, adding that the president's strategy actually "shows (the Czech Republic's) economic vulnerability."

Over the weekend, Zemen blamed the U.S. and Europe for affecting ties with Beijing, hailing a "restart of relations."

"There was very bad relationship between China and the former government of the Czech Republic—former government, I stress—because this government has been very submissive to the pressure from the U.S. and from the EU," Zeman said, according to the Chinese CCTVnews broadcaster.

Czech gross domestic product (GDP) totaled $205.3 billion in 2014, according to the World Bank, while the government's debt-to-GDP ratio that year amassed to 42.7 percent. The government's macro-economic forecast released in January estimated debt to have fallen only marginally to 41 percent of GDP in 2015.

"But the Czech Republic is far and away from being the only country in Europe to try to improve relations with China," William Jackson, a senior emerging markets economist at Capital Economics told CNBC via email.

"My impression is that most eastern European countries are trying to improve ties with China, rather than the other way round, and China is reciprocating," he explained.

China's Xi Jinping notably stopped over in Belarus in May last year for the first head of state visit in over a decade, which reportedly ended with penned contracts worth billions of dollars.

A strategic agreement with the Czech Republic, meanwhile, is expected to usher in contracts worth 1.6 billion euros ($1.79 billion), Godement said. However, the contracts will still be bound by European Union laws, which could complicate their completion, he explained.

Xi Jinping is expected to stay in the Czech Republic until Thursday when he leaves for the U.S. to attend a nuclear security summit.

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