Poland: China’s stable partner in Europe

It won’t leave the shrinking “16+1” anytime soon.

At the end of July, Polish president Andrzej Duda spoke on the phone with PRC Chairman and CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping. According to the press release published by the Polish side, they discussed Russian aggression in Ukraine and the impact of the conflict on regional security. The two leaders also discussed the war’s impact on trade between Poland and China and on the global food market. However, the development of bilateral economic cooperation and an increase in the number of direct flights constituted the key topics of discussion. Mutual relations were described as “high-quality, intensive and friendly”. The only Chinese reaction to the war mentioned in the press release was Beijing’s meaningless expression of readiness to cooperate with Poland in finding peaceful ways to resolve the conflict in Ukraine. There was no indication that the Polish side had put any pressure on China to stop supporting Russia’s aggression. Duda’s conversation with Xi Jinping was another example of the Polish government’s soft approach to Beijing’s international policy, leaving no doubt that the Polish president still regards China as a desirable partner for political and economic cooperation.

Last year Polish-Chinese relations proceeded smoothly. On multiple occasions Polish politicians and high-ranking government officials expressed interest in the intensification of bilateral cooperation. A symbolic political gesture on the Polish side was the issuance of RMB-denominated bonds in China, so-called “panda bonds.” The beginning of this year marked even better relations; friendly gestures from China were largely driven by the need to ensure the participation of Duda in the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in Beijing. A few weeks before the Games, the Polish president received a message from Xi Jinping wishing him good health, since Duda had Covid at the time. The CCP general secretary also expressed hope for further development of Polish-Chinese relations and a desire to deepen the comprehensive strategic partnership between the countries. Several days later, the head of the President’s International Policy Bureau Jakub Kumoch announced that Duda would fly to Beijing to attend the opening ceremony of the Olympics. The Polish president was one of the few high-level representatives of Western countries. His visit to China provoked negative comments in the Polish media associated with various political factions. After his visit, China’s ambassador to Poland emphasised that support for the Beijing Games represented the epitome of Polish-Chinese friendship. Xi Jinping’s meeting with Duda resulted in a series of Chinese promises to intensify economic cooperation with Poland.

See no evil

One might assume that Russia’s aggression in Ukraine and China’s support of Putin’s regime would result in a revision of the Polish government’s position on China. But the Polish president and government still treat China as a desired partner, pretending in public that they do not see the nature and scale of Beijing’s support for Russia. A few weeks after the war broke out, Jakub Kumoch held a meeting 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 overt and firm support of Russia did not prevent the talks from being lengthy and amicable. In light of Beijing’s actions supporting Putin’s regime, Kumoch’s statement that he hoped China would play a “constructive role in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine” can only be taken as a purely political statement completely detached from reality.

The friendly gestures of the president – whose role in shaping Poland’s foreign policy is rather limited – differed for some time from the government’s actions, which were more cautious and toned down. In April and May, Beijing’s special envoy, former PRC Ambassador to the Czech Republic Huo Yuzhen, visited eight CEE countries. Her task was to present the Chinese position on the Russian-Ukrainian war and to reaffirm good relations with the former members of the communist bloc. In Poland, she was not invited to any official meetings, not even on a working level. Since then, however, the Polish government has also shown its desire to maintain a good level of cooperation with Beijing. In June, Polish Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau spoke with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi at the Third Plenary Meeting of the Polish-Chinese Intergovernmental Committee. The talks were focused on economic issues, such as Chinese investments, trade, increased participation of Polish companies in servicing rail connections between China and Europe, etc. The eagerness of the Polish government to maintain good relations with China, regardless of Beijing’s support for Putin’s regime, was translated into implicit acceptance of the support that China gave to Russia at the UN forum: “Despite differences in voting at the United Nations, the ministers agreed that the foundation of international relations in interactions between states is respect for the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

Another Gateway to Europe

It seems the CCP leadership appreciates the Polish authorities’ reluctance to publicly criticize China for the support it provides to Russia. The open dispute with Vilnius, in which China imposed de facto sanctions on Lithuania’s exports, and the increasingly frosty attitude toward China in other countries of the former communist bloc, has led to a shrinking number of Chinese friends in the region. In the Czech Republic, both parliamentarians and government officials are clearly distancing themselves from China. Romanian authorities have blocked Chinese investment in key sectors and resisted political pressure from Beijing. The latest blow came from Latvia and Estonia. On August 11 both countries announced their withdrawal from the “16+1” format. The European Union as a bloc is also increasingly critical of China. Beijing is therefore trying to engage governments that still have a more China-friendly attitude. At the beginning of July, “Rzeczpospolita”, a popular Polish newspaper, published an article written by the Chinese ambassador to Poland. In the article, Sun Linjiang emphasized the importance of trade and the development of rail routes. He also expressed the hope that Poland, “as a gateway to Europe, will realize the potential of cooperation with China” and “will support taking China’s cooperation with Central and Eastern Europe to a new level.” The Chinese communiqué that followed Duda’s July conversation with Xi Jinping referred to Poland as an excellent partner for China in Central and Eastern Europe. It also highlighted China’s desire to maintain good communication between both countries and mutual trust in the political sphere.

If the Polish ruling coalition and government have been somewhat disappointed with China’s attitude toward Russia, as Justyna Szczudlik from PISM (The Polish Institute of International Affairs) claims, this has not yet translated into serious action. Warsaw is still far friendlier to Beijing than Vilnius, Riga, Tallinn, Prague, or even Bucharest. The relatively amicable attitude of the United Right (the coalition ruling Poland since 2015) toward China may be a result of the vested interests of some industries, whose support for the Law and Justice Party (PiS, the leader of the ruling coalition) could help it remain in power. Exports of agricultural goods, dairy and meat are highly dependent on the friendly attitude of the Chinese administration. Politicians associated with the relevant industries are concerned 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 KGHM (a Polish multinational corporation specializing in copper mining and processing), for example, China is still a fairly important partner, although somewhat less significant than a few years ago.

Cooperation with China is increasingly important for rail enterprises as well as the logistics sector. PKP Cargo (the state-owned rail operator) is currently investing in infrastructure to increase its share in the rail freight business between China and Europe via Russia. Polish authorities plan to allocate PLN 4 billion (around $870M) for the modernization and expansion of the rail terminal in Małaszewicze. When completed, this investment will facilitate an increase in imports from China. The logistics industry is lobbying for further cooperation with China and for years has pressured the government to position itself as a logistics hub in the rail trade between Europe and China. This has been echoed by analysts such as Konrad Popławski and Jakub Jakóbowski from OSW (Centre for Eastern Studies). After several years of promoting the development of rail connections with China, Poland is still a transit country with rapidly growing imports from China and the logistics industry has been the main beneficiary of increased import volumes.

The ruling political faction’s professed hope that overall Polish exports to China would massively increase, leading to a decrease in the trade deficit, has become meaningless. Apparently only a few politicians want to undertake corrective action and even fewer have any idea how to improve the situation in the long term. The Polish government’s concerns about the high trade deficit and asymmetry in trade relations seem absurd in light of the same government’s ongoing actions supporting the growth of imports from China. According to Statistics Poland (GUS), Polish imports from China (in USD) increased by more than 27.6 percent in the first five months of this year compared to the same period in 2021, while exports fell by 12.3 percent.

Political reasons appear to be even more important in maintaining a relatively friendly approach to China. The United Right is once again on a collision course with the European Union. A settlement of the so-called “rule of law” dispute with the European Commission is currently highly uncertain. PiS seems to have given up any effort to fulfill obligations that have been agreed upon with the Commission. Due to PiS reluctance to implement measures requested by the EU, the latter decided to withhold payments connected to the National Reconstruction Plan. Relations with Joe Biden’s administration, which are not the best, to put it mildly, have fortunately not yet had a serious negative impact. Political divergences and disputes have been put aside due to Russian aggression and the need to maintain cooperation between the two governments, both bilaterally and within NATO. It seems the United Right government is 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 “Chinese dream” will one day come to an end and the Polish government will finally openly adopt a more realistic stance on China’s policies and actions.