Jan Kohout - A diplomat on a silken road

31. 1. 2016 | Source: BusinessInfo.cz

Former foreign minister Jan Kohout is the founder of the Institut nové hedvábné stezky – or the New Silk Road Institute. He has already convened its first seminar on Czech-Chinese cooperation. But missing at this meeting were members of the influential Smíšená česko čínská komora [the Joint Czech-China Chamber of Commerce] headed by fellow exgovernment minister and associate Jaroslav Tvrdík.

"Each person addresses the issue of China from a different angle. We have no ambition to tell Czech firms with whom they should cooperate on the Chinese side, or to organise visits and delegations," explains Kohout, currently serving as advisor to President Zeman on Chinese matters.

Several associations, chambers and companies focused on China already operate in the Czech Republic. How does your New Silk Road Institute differ?
The main reason for establishing the institute was the Chinese initiative to create a New Silk Road [also known as China's One Belt, One Road Eurasian framework; not to be confused with the similar US-formulated New Silk Road Initiative for transit areas across Europe and East Asia -Ed.].

They view this as a long-term global strategy, which will deliver many opportunities for all countries that take part. The Czech Republic should also grab this opportunity. The aim of the institute is to expound the idea of this silk road, not just with regards to China, but also regarding relations with other Asian countries.

The aim is not the direct support of business relations, but the seeking out of opportunities and issues in which the Czech Republic should partake.

What specific form does such an endeavour take?
The entire New Silk Road Institute is not yet familiar to the wider public. It offers up dimensions spanning cultural and educational activities; it will incorporate
cooperation between universities and scientific workplaces, and the sphere of modern technology.

So it isn't just about representing Chinese firms in the Czech Republic and Czech firms in China. It is also about cooperating in third-party markets, primarily in Central Asia. Right now, things are not yet seen in this way in our country.

How are you structured?
Our managing board comprises many members with the appropriate backgrounds. The role of the institute - and it is not a huge role - is in coordinating and utilising those capacities available via our members.

Former PM Petr Nečas also figures in the institute.
He was one of the first [politicians] in the country to clearly state that better relations with China were desirable. He also has experience in the energy and technology spheres. During the time that he was premier [2010-13], these spheres underwent considerable development. Which is why he can bring many incentives and contacts to the table.

Do you have some kind of stable partner on the Chinese side?
We are hooked up to a network of think tanks spanning 16 central and eastern European countries and Chinese research institutes. On the Chinese side, for example, we cooperate with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, or their Institute for European Studies.

Who will finance the work of the institute?
We won't be financing projects. These are projects that will come under the resources offered by two new financial institutions - the Silk Road Fund and the Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank.

Where does the Czech Republic fit in within the overall New Silk Road concept?
If you look at all the large infrastructure projects set to be built [in China], then you see that the Czech Republic is largely absent. Nor are we even founding members of the AIIB. Which is why as a first step we should seek to become a member.

Then we should define infrastructure or energy projects which are worthy of either our attention, or the attention of third-party countries. And then we should help find partners and financing for such projects.

How do you want to persuade the government to re-evaluate its current view that membership of the AIIB is not in its interests?
If neighbouring countries, such as Austria, or small countries such as Luxembourg, or larger European countries, are all experiencing the benefits of membership, then I don't see a reason why a technologically advanced country like the Czech Republic can also not see the benefits.

We want to put pressure on the government to re-assess its current position.

You also serve as President Zeman's advisor on Chinese matters. What coordination exists between the president's activities and those of the government with regards to China?
There are no contradictions between the two. Similarly to the government, the president is also interested in the Czech Republic becoming a place where investment flows from China. And at the same time, for it to be a place which is perceived as advanced in terms of technology and education, so that from here, Chinese firms could service the entire region.

Nor should it merely be a one-way street; the same care should be given to supporting Czech firms and research institutions as they seek to operate within the Chinese market.

Presently, the approach of the Czech government towards China, along with overall levels of investment, can be described as somewhat chaotic. Does some kind of targeted strategy exist, according to which both the government and president operate?
Presently, no long-term strategy exists. Right now, the main issue is to normalise fundamental relations with China and to start to find opportunities for both sides. And it is the New Silk Road precisely that could enable our efforts to take on a more strategic form.

By comparing interest levels across various fields with our own potential we can formulate a strategy outlining where we should increase our efforts, and where, conversely, our chances are not so great. We want to work on that with the government and non-governmental sector.

What is your relationship like now with the Joint Czech-China Chamber of Commerce, given that you headed this organisation during its first two years of existence?
We are a non-profit organisation. We have no ambition to put together projects and profit from them, like certain chambers. We want to give advice on the kind of direction to go, and activities to undertake. Those that actually set out on these business endeavours should not include us.

There is a question as to whom the government and president will heed more - Jan Kohout, or Jaroslav Tvrdík [president of the Joint Czech-China Chamber of Commerce].
Everyone approaches this issue from a different angle. Our activities mutually supplement each other. We have no ambition to be telling Czech firms with whom they should cooperate on the Chinese side, or to organise visits and delegations.

For that there is the Czech-China Chamber and other similar institutions. We want to seek out fields in which it makes sense to invest energies. Whether business is subsequently conducted via the Confederation of Industry of the Czech Republic, the Chamber of Commerce, the Joint Czech-China Chamber of Commerce, or someone else plays no role in our concept.

Why did you leave the Joint Czech-China Chamber of Commerce after two years there?
You can't have two strong personalities at the head of one chamber. In companies, too, it happens that two partners get a project up and running, but after a time they start to disagree over the future strategic course. I have very fond memories of my time at the chamber, and along with Jaroslav Tvrdík we managed to carry out a good piece of work.

He has now consolidated that by going in one direction, and I have set out on a direction closer to my previous professional career in diplomacy.

Jan Kohout (54)

From 2002-04 and again in 2008-09, served as assistant to the Czech foreign minister. Also twice ended up serving as foreign minister - the first time in 2009, during the caretaker government of Jan Fischer, and again in 2013 during the caretaker government of Jiří Rusnok.

From 2004-08 served as the Czech Republic's permanent representative on EU affairs. In 2011, helped to build the Joint Czech-Chinese Chamber of Commerce, for which he served as president. Kohout left the organisation after two years. Since 2014 he has served as an advisor to president Miloš Zeman on Chinese matters.

Originally published in E15 weekly, economic and business newsmagazine. Author: Jan Stuchlík

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