The shrinking “16+1” group will not leave Poland anytime soon.
At the end of July, Polish President Andrzej Duda had a phone call with Chinese President and General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party Xi Jinping. According to a Polish press release, they discussed Russian aggression in Ukraine and its impact on regional security. The two leaders also discussed the effects of the war on trade between Poland and China and on the world food market. However, the development of mutual economic cooperation and the increase in the number of direct flights were key topics of the meeting. Mutual relations were described as “high-quality, intensive and friendly”. China’s only reaction to the war in the press release was an unsubtle statement by Beijing about its readiness to work with Poland to find peaceful ways to resolve the conflict in Ukraine. There was no indication that the Polish side exerted any pressure on China to stop supporting Russian aggression. Duda’s conversation with Xi Jinping was another example of the Polish government’s soft approach to Beijing’s international policy, leaving no one in doubt that the Polish president still considers China a desirable partner for political and economic cooperation.
Last year, Polish-Chinese relations developed smoothly. Polish politicians and high-ranking government officials have expressed interest in intensifying mutual cooperation on numerous occasions. A symbolic political gesture from the Polish side was the issuance of RMB-denominated bonds in China, the so-called “panda bonds”. At the beginning of this year, we witnessed their further improvement. The friendly gestures from China were largely driven by the desire to secure Duda’s participation in the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics. A few weeks before the Games, the Polish President received a message from Xi Jinping wishing him good health, as Duda was suffering from covid at the time. The CCP General Secretary also said that he hoped to further develop Polish-Chinese relations and deepen the comprehensive strategic partnership between the two countries. A few days later, Jakub Kumoch, head of the President’s Office for International Policy, announced that Duda would fly to Beijing for the opening of the Olympic Games. The Polish president was one of the few high-ranking officials from Western countries to attend the ceremony. His visit to China sparked negative comments in the Polish media from various political factions. After Duda’s visit, the Chinese ambassador to Poland stressed that Beijing’s support for the Games was an embodiment of Polish-Chinese friendship. Xi Jinping’s meeting with Duda resulted in a series of Chinese pledges to intensify economic cooperation with Poland.
An invisible evil
One might expect that Russian aggression in Ukraine and Chinese support for the Putin regime would lead to a revision of the Polish government’s attitude towards China. However, the Polish president and government still regard China as an acceptable partner and pretend in public that they do not see how and to what extent Beijing supports Russia. A few weeks after the outbreak of the war, Jakub Kumoch met with the PRC ambassador to Poland, where the Polish side presented its position on Russian aggression in Ukraine. Polish-Chinese bilateral relations were also discussed. China’s open and resolute support for Russia did not prevent the talks from being long and friendly. Kumoch expressed hope that China would play a “constructive role in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine”, but this statement can be seen as purely political and completely divorced from reality in light of Beijing’s activities supporting the Putin regime.
For a time, the friendly gestures of the president – whose role in shaping Polish foreign policy is rather limited – were different from the government’s actions, which were more cautious and moderate. In April and May, Beijing’s special envoy, former PRC ambassador to the Czech Republic Huo Yu-chen, visited eight Central and Eastern European countries. Her task was to present China’s position on the Russia-Ukraine war and to reaffirm good relations with former members of the communist bloc. She was not invited to any official meetings in Poland, not even at working level. Since then, however, the Polish government has also expressed a desire to maintain a good level of cooperation with Beijing. In June, Polish Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau spoke with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yim at the third plenary session of the Polish-Chinese Intergovernmental Committee. The talks focused on economic issues such as Chinese investment, trade, greater participation of Polish companies in rail links between China and Europe, etc. The Polish government’s efforts to maintain good relations with China, regardless of its support for the Putin regime, led to indirect support for the Chinese position at the UN forum:
“Despite the differences in the UN vote, the ministers agreed that respect for the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity is the basis of international relations in any interaction between states.”
Another gateway to Europe
The CCP leadership seems to appreciate the reluctance of the Polish authorities to publicly criticise China for its support to Russia. The open dispute with Vilnius, in which China has imposed de facto sanctions on Lithuanian exports, and the increasingly frosty attitude towards China in other former communist bloc countries, has led to a shrinking number of China’s friends in the region. In the Czech Republic, both parliamentarians and government officials are clearly distancing themselves from China. The Romanian authorities have blocked Chinese investment in key sectors and are resisting political pressure from Beijing. The latest blow came from Latvia and Estonia. Both countries announced their withdrawal from the “16+1” format on 11 August. The European Union as a whole has also become increasingly critical of China. Beijing is therefore trying to engage governments that continue to maintain a friendly attitude towards China. In early July, the popular Polish newspaper ‘Rzeczpospolita’ published an article written by the Chinese ambassador to Poland. In it, Sun Linjiang stressed the importance of trade and the development of rail routes. He also expressed the hope that “Poland, as a gateway to Europe, will realise the potential of cooperation with China” and “support taking China’s cooperation with Central and Eastern Europe to a new level”. The Chinese communiqué, which followed Duda’s July talks with Xi Jinping, described Poland as an excellent partner for China in Central and Eastern Europe. It also referred to China’s wish to maintain good communication between the two countries and mutual trust in the political sphere.
If the Polish ruling coalition and government are somewhat disappointed with China’s attitude towards Russia, as Justyna Szczudlik of the Polish Institute of International Relations (PISM) argues, this has certainly not translated into actual action so far. Warsaw is still much more accommodating to Beijing than Vilnius, Riga, Tallinn, Prague, or even Bucharest. Behind the relatively friendly attitude of the United Right (the coalition ruling Poland since 2015) towards China may be the individual interests of some business sectors, whose support could help keep the Law and Justice Party (PiS, the leader of the ruling coalition) in power. Exports of agricultural goods, dairy products and meat are heavily dependent on the accommodating attitude of the Chinese administration. Politicians associated with the relevant industries fear that political tensions could have a negative impact on exports. The performance of some Polish state-owned enterprises is also linked to positive cooperation with China. For example, for KGHM (a Polish multinational specialising in copper mining and processing), China is still a relatively important partner, albeit slightly less important than a few years ago.
Cooperation with China is increasingly important for railway companies and the logistics sector. PKP Cargo (the state railway operator) is currently investing in infrastructure to increase its share of rail freight traffic between China and Europe via Russia. The Polish authorities plan to allocate PLN 4 billion (approximately $870 million) to modernise and expand the railway terminal in Malszewicz. Once completed, this investment will allow for increased imports from China. The logistics industry has been lobbying for further cooperation with China and has been pushing the government for several years to position itself as a logistics hub in rail trade between Europe and China. This is confirmed by analysts such as Konrad Poplawski and Jakub Jakóbowski from OSW (Centre for Eastern Studies). After several years of promoting the development of rail links with China, Poland is still a transit country with rapidly growing imports from China, and the logistics industry in particular is benefiting from the increase in import volumes.
The hopes of the ruling coalition that Poland’s overall exports to China will increase massively, leading to a reduction in the trade deficit, have become groundless. Few politicians seem to be interested in remedying the situation, and even fewer have any idea how to improve the situation in the long term. The Polish Government’s fears of a high trade deficit and asymmetry in trade relations seem absurd, given that the same Government has been steadfastly promoting the growth of imports from China through its actions. According to the Polish Statistical Office (GUS), Polish imports from China (in USD) increased by more than 27.6% in the first five months of this year compared to the same period in 2021, while exports fell by 12.3%.
Political reasons seem to be an even more important factor in maintaining a relatively friendly attitude towards China. The United Right coalition has once again found itself in conflict with the European Union. The settlement of the dispute with the European Commission over the so-called rule of law is currently very uncertain. PiS seems to have resigned itself to any effort to fulfil the commitments agreed with the Commission. Because of PiS’s unwillingness to implement the measures demanded by the EU, the EU has decided to withhold payments linked to the National Recovery Plan. Fortunately, relations with the Joe Biden administration, which are, to put it mildly, not the best, have not yet been seriously affected. Political disagreements and disputes have been put aside because of Russian aggression and the need to maintain cooperation between the two governments, both bilaterally and within NATO. The United Right government appears to be trying to maintain good relations with Beijing in case there is a serious crisis in relations with other key partners. One can only hope that the ruling coalition’s ‘China dream’ will one day come to an end and that the Polish government will finally openly adopt a more realistic attitude towards China’s policies and actions.
Łukasz Sarek is a Polish consultant and Chinese market analyst. He studied law and sinology at Warsaw University and Chinese language and culture at Zhejiang University and Nanjing Normal University. He has lived and worked in China for many years. He is currently engaged in business consulting.
The text was published on Sinopsis here. Translation: Hana Do
This text was translated from the article published at Časopis Přítomnost.
published: 26. 9. 2022