A Czech delegation arrived in Taipei Sunday in the second high-profile foreign visit to Taiwan this month -- a setback for China's campaign to keep the island isolated from the rest of the world.
The 90-member group, led by senate speaker Milos Vystrcil, landed two weeks after US health chief Alex Azar marshalled the highest-level mission to Taiwan by Washington since it switched diplomatic recognition to Beijing in 1979.
Vystrcil will deliver a speech in Taiwan's parliament and meet President Tsai Ing-wen during a five-day trip described by Taipei as standing up to "the intimidation of authoritarian China".
"Our nations share many core values and we look forward to furthering cooperation in all areas," Tsai wrote on Twitter after the delegation landed.
Beijing views democratic Taiwan as its own territory -- vowing to one day seize it by force if necessary -- and bristles at any moves by foreign governments to recognise or conduct official exchanges with Taipei.
It has described Vystrcil's visit as a "despicable act".
"His insistence to go to Taiwan to carry out this so-called 'visit' deliberately wrecks the political foundation of China-Czech relations," foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said on Thursday.
China has ramped up diplomatic, military and economic pressure on Taiwan since Tsai came to power in 2016 as she views the island as a sovereign nation and not part of "one China".
Tsai won a landslide re-election in January and a growing number of countries are expanding ties with the island -- especially those wary of China's increasingly muscular foreign policy.
The Czech Republic is one such country.
Earlier this year the city of Prague sparked Beijing's ire by signing a partnership agreement with Taipei that prompted Shanghai to cut ties as a sister city.
Prague mayor Zdenek Hrib, who signed the agreement, is on this week's delegation to Taiwan.
- Changing sentiment -
Fabrizio Bozzato, a Taipei-based international relations expert with the University of Rome La Sapienza, said the Czech visit shows "the political-diplomatic wall that Beijing has tried to build all around the island is not impassable".
"Such openly defiant initiatives also signal that, even in Europe, the zeitgeist is changing from 'Beijing consensus' to 'resisting Beijing'," he told AFP.
Jonathan Sullivan, director of the University of Nottingham's China Programmes, said Tsai has pushed to build connections with countries it has "informal" relations with.
The Czech visit, he said, was "a psychological boost during continued pressures and marginalisation" by Beijing.
"But such public demonstrations of support and engagement with Taiwan are not going to become typical overnight," he told AFP.
Modern-day Taiwan has been ruled separately from China since the end of a civil war in 1949.
For decades it was a harsh autocracy, like China, but since the late 1990s it has evolved into one of Asia's most progressive democracies. Last year it became the first place in Asia to legalise gay marriage.
Tsai has marketed the island as a progressive democratic ally to other nations hoping to push back against Beijing's authoritarianism.
That push has been further helped by Taiwan's success in tackling the local coronavirus outbreak, and its global aid shipments of personal protection equipment.
In a speech to an Australian think tank on Thursday, Tsai described Taiwan as being "on the frontline of freedom and democracy" as China cracks down on dissent in nearby Hong Kong and elsewhere.
"I think that as China's positions and behaviours on a range of issues from Xinjiang to Hong Kong to the South China Sea diverge from the values of democratic countries, we will see more politicians standing up to say 'this is not OK with us'," Sullivan said.
Vystrcil has said his Taiwan trip will fulfil the legacy of the late president Vaclav Havel, a dissident leader of the 1989 Velvet Revolution which toppled communism in the former Czechoslovakia.
Until then the country experienced decades of authoritarian Soviet Union rule.