“Global politics are moving to Asia” – Czech Ambassador to India on new Indo-Pacific strategy

Černín Palace - Headquarters of Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Statistics in recent years have shown that there is a growing number of Indians, both students and professionals that are moving to and living in Czechia. Why is that? And what are Czech-Indian relations like in general? To find out more, I spoke to Dr Eliška Žigová, who served as the head of the Asia-Pacific Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs before being appointed as the country’s ambassador to India earlier this year. I began by asking her how she felt about being appointed as the Czech Republic to the most populous country in the world.

“Honestly, I was surprised. I was interested in India more from a cultural point of view, perhaps a spiritual one too, it’s a very interesting culture. Nevertheless, when I was offered India, I couldn’t say no, because it is such an interesting as well as important country and always will be. It’s a challenge.”

Czechoslovakia is known to have helped India’s development during the Cold War. How have economic relations developed since the fall of the iron curtain? Are there for example some milestones you can point to?

“Well, it started even before the Cold War with Bata. Czechoslovakia was well known in India and, during the Cold War, helped India with its industrial development.

“This helps us a lot in our current economic relations, because Czechia is well known and considered to be a reliable partner, especially in technological fields. Relations are developing very well.

“As far as milestones are concerned, I know this is not really an economic matter, but certainly the visit of the Indian president Ram Nath Kovind to Prague was a milestone. To have the head of such a large state visiting Czechia was really something. We are hoping for some more visits on this level.

“In any case, from the economic point of view, Czechia can offer much to India when it comes to modern technologies, digitisation and the so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution. These are all important things to India and we are pretty well developed in these areas. But it’s of course also about infrastructure, transportation, the aerial industry and, last but not least, also about defence.”

In recent years we have seen increasing numbers of Indians moving to work and study in Czechia. Why do you think that is?

Eliška Žigová being accepted by the Chairman of the Majlis of the Parliament of the Republic of Kazakhstan,  Nurlan Z. Nigmatulin | Photo: Czech Foreign Ministry

“Honestly, Indians are traveling to the whole of Europe. After the coronavirus pandemic there is a real boom. Indians are curious and interested in studying abroad. Czech Republic is one of those countries in Europe. Of course Australia and the United States are also popular destinations.

“I think that they are very welcome in Czechia, because they are specialists and open minded people. It is a trend, mainly among young Indians, to go abroad and work and study there.”

I understand that Czechia also provides a scholarship for bright Indian students hoping to study university in Czechia?

“There are different types of scholarships. I don’t know which particular type of scholarship this young lady has. In any case, there are three so-called governmental scholarships. It’s a very small number but we are still happy for this. Then there are also various scholarships offered by our universities. They are of course very interested in having students from India, because they are hardworking, intelligent and open minded.

“So there are various kinds of scholarships that are available to Indian students in Czechia and we are very much promoting the option of studying in Czechia. We have different presentations that can be viewed on our website. We also do a workshop in Delhi and cooperate closely with the Czech National Agency for International Education and Research.

“So, if a young Indian approaches us with questions about the possibility of studying in Czechia, we are able to offer guidance. It’s also very good that the University of Delhi offers a Bohemian Studies course and has a lecturer focused on that subject, so students there have the option to study the Czech language, which is very important.”

 What about the current visa policy between Czechia and India? I guess this is very much intertwined with wider EU policy but do you expect any developments in that sphere?

Photo: BilliTheCat,  Pixabay,  Pixabay License

“We are organising a kind of gathering of new students and try to explain how these rules work to them. There is also a reaction from those who are already studying and working in Czechia, so we invite those people to come too, so they meet together discuss and answer each other’s question.

“We also do some explaining of course, but it is very important that there is already this sort of exchange between Indians living here and newcomers. That said, so far I haven’t met any Indian who would be unhappy or lost in Czechia.”

Before assuming the position of Ambassador to India, you were in charge of the Foreign Ministry’s Asia and Pacific Department. What is the strategy of Czechia towards the Asia-Pacific region in general? I understand that the government is currently preparing a new one?

Eliška Žigová  (Director of the Asia Pacific Department in 2019) and H.E. Mrs. Ureerat Chareontoh,  Ambassador of the Kingdom of Thailand to the Czech Republic | Photo: Royal Thai Embassy in The Czech Republic

“Yes, this is a new strategy. We haven’t had an Asia-Pacific strategy before.

“In any case, global politics are moving to Asia, honestly. As Europe we need to be concerned about that and try to learn about and cooperate with this region much more. The Indo-Pacific is therefore one of the priorities of the Czech EU presidency.

“Of course there were many shifts and reorganisations of our priorities after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but this one remains and we are working on it. So, together with this priority, we decided to prepare a strategy. Preparations began about a year ago. It is therefore still very fresh. It’s all about how we Czechs and Europeans in general can cooperate with Asia on different levels, whether they be political or, of course, economic.

“It is also about how we can stick together, because the world is now so globalised, how we can work towards our mutual interests. Currently, the EU has its own strategy for this region, so do the United States. Meanwhile, France, Germany, Netherlands and Czechia are preparing strategies. It is in the very last stages, but it still needs to be approved by the government.”

Could you tell us what countries you are especially interested in as part of the strategy for the region?

“We are mostly interested in like-minded countries. These are Japan, Korea, India, Indonesia, but we are also interested in working together with countries that perhaps have different views. We are therefore looking at areas where we could have some things in common to find an area where we could cooperate together.

“The main point of the strategy is to pull Asia towards us and to enter this arrangement. For example, we can have some discussions about space security, which is very important at this time. In Singapore, we will have a seminar on cyber security, which is also very important. We would be interested in keeping those sorts of relations.

“I can’t be too specific, because the strategy is yet to be approved, but it is about likeminded countries and the ones that aren’t likeminded either. There are different levels, you know.”

What about Vietnam? We have such a strong Vietnamese minority in this country.

Eliška Žigová as Head of the Mission Embassy of the Czech Republic in Astana | Photo: Czech Foreign Ministry

“Yes, Vietnam is very special to us, we have a big minority of Vietnamese here. On the other hand, we have differences in opinion on various topics.

“Nevertheless, we do have very good relations and, during our presidency of the EU, we have the goal of cooperating on maritime security with them. I realise that may sound strange given that we are a landlocked country. However, we can also contribute in this area.

“It is also part of our EU presidency cooperation in this particular conference about maritime security which is very important for Vietnam.”

Is it different in any way to be the Czech ambassador to India when your country is holding the EU presidency?

“Well, it is my first time being ambassador in this situation (laughs). Honestly though, it is different with India, because although we may be more in their interest now, India is not much involved in the presidency and in EU issues.

“For India it is important if you are an EU member, the presidency is just additional. I can’t say for certain, but I think it is more or less the same as in normal times.”

Ženy v diplomacii - Eliška Žigová