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Would Poland Fight with Russia and Dance with China?

Would Poland Fight with Russia and Dance with China?

Poland’s growing closeness to China should be setting off alarm bells among Western democracies.

Dalibor Roháč

Whatever one thinks of Poland’s current ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS), Poland is an exemplary ally of the United States. Polish governments headed by a variety of parties have been deeply committed to the transatlantic partnership and to Poland’s responsibilities within NATO. They’ve also been clear-eyed about the Russian threat to Eastern Europe.

There’s a wrinkle though, that can only loom larger as America’s focus shifts to the Indo-Pacific: Poland’s relations with China. Much has been written about Poland’s “rule of law” disputes with the European Union, including over the independence of its judiciary and public media outlets, and the putative threat to democracy that the PiS party poses. In contrast, the nuances of Poland’s China policy are less well understood.

Nevertheless, to U.S. policymakers, Poland’s relationship with China is at least as important as PiS’ real and imagined depredations in power. These latter have never reached the same scale as in Hungary, and they may soon become a distant memory—PiS may lose the upcoming parliamentary election this fall.

Poland’s treatment of China will remain a critical question regardless of the election’s outcome. It was a government led by Donald Tusk, the opposition leader seeking to unseat PiS after eight years, which in 2012 hosted the first summit of what has become known as the “16+1” format—a form of high-level engagement between Beijing and governments of Central and Eastern Europe. For all the polarization in Polish politics, the subsequent PiS-led governments have maintained and even further cultivated Poland’s relations with China.

Whereas other U.S. allies in the region—the Baltic states and the Czech Republic—have abandoned the “16+1” meetings, Poland lingers on, treating China as a “friendly and reliable strategic partner,” as a readout from a 2022 meeting between the two countries’ foreign ministers, Zbigniew Raw and Wang Yi, put it. President Andrzej Duda was among the few Western leaders to be warmly received by Xi Jinping at the opening of the 2022 Olympics in Beijing. Five months into Russia’s war against Ukraine, Duda’s phone conversation with Xi seems to have struck a surprisingly effusive tone, judging by the readouts released by the two administrations.

Of course, Poland has a reason to look at Russia and China through different lenses than does the United States. Russia is a close potential threat, has revisionist goals in the region, and a track record of mass killings and atrocities within Poland’s living memory. China is far away, with distant geopolitical interests, and it makes its existence known mostly through cheap consumer goods and the promise of investment.

Poland’s National Security Strategy, written in 2020, mentions China exactly once, to note the existence of its strategic rivalry with the United States. The prior 2017 foreign policy strategy, meanwhile, urges Polish policymakers to “seek cooperation opportunities with non-European partners, especially the People’s Republic of China, in the implementation of regional infrastructure projects.”

More recently, Polish Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau’s extensive speech or “exposé,” to the Sejm in April 2023, in which he articulated the goals and strategic thinking behind Poland’s foreign policy, talks about China in distinctly cautious terms. On the one hand, it expresses the “hope that [China] will be more active in its reactions to the destruction of peace by Russia,” given the special responsibility that Beijing has to maintaining peace in the world by virtue of its size and seat on the UN Security Council. On the other hand, the document stops short of criticizing China. Instead, it “values China’s declarations on the respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity of all states,” and “[appreciates] Beijing’s clear objection to the use or threats of using nuclear weapons in international relations.”

Rau goes out of his way to praise “the high level of Polish-Chinese communication during the pandemic,” and expresses hope for “a swift return to regular and direct contacts with China in areas such as diplomacy, business, tourism, and education.” Today, Poland is home to six Confucius Institutes—known vehicles for Chinese influence in academia—including at the venerable Jagellonian University in Krakow.

What seems largely missing from the Polish debate on China is an emphasis on Beijing’s coercive economic practices, forced technology transfers, and its leveraging of dependencies. These topics have all propelled a proliferation of new economic and trade policies at the EU—sometimes with unintended consequences for Europe’s overall economic openness as well as for transatlantic relations. Given its close ties to the United States and its commitment to market principles, Poland would be singularly well-positioned to help the EU strike a healthy balance between the competing objectives—and yet, Warsaw remains mostly silent on these issues. Neither is Poland at the forefront of diplomatic engagement with Taiwan, as pursued by Lithuania and the Czech Republic. Both of these aspects of Central Europe’s China policy are critical, however, to the region’s relationship with the United States.

To be fair, a Polish Office has existed in Taipei since 1992, as has a Taiwan Office in Warsaw. The Law and Justice parliamentarian Waldemar Andzel, who chairs Poland’s Formosa Club, has been travelling to Taiwan regularly. By comparison, however, the Czechs sent a 150-strong parliamentary delegation led by the lower house speaker to the island, following on the Czech Senate’s ground-breaking trip at the height of the COVID pandemic—both of which have attracted ire from Beijing. Meanwhile, “Poland adheres to the one-China policy and appreciates China’s consistent pursuit of a foreign policy of peace,” as China’s read-out of the Rau-Wang bilateral meeting stresses.

Poland did promise the Trump administration to exclude Huawei from its 5G networks. The reality of doing so has been complicated by the already existing Chinese-built infrastructure and by Huawei’s legal challenges, which are invoking the EU’s principle of non-discrimination. In 2023, Poland has adopted a screening mechanism for foreign investment, which could be used to keep Chinese companies away from sensitive sectors. It remains to be seen how much of a difference the new tool makes.

Poles might still hope for Chinese investment in the region, including to buttress their Three Seas Initiative, initiated to strengthen the region’s resilience against Russia. Nevertheless, even when one sets aside the dry spell during COVID, China has never been a massive investor in Poland’s economy. Nor is it a significant destination for Polish exports—last year, for example, Poland exported more to Finland than to China. The possibility of course remains, given China’s size and its importance as a source of cheap consumer imports ($47 billion worth of them in 2022).

Just three months before the “no-limits” partnership between Beijing and Moscow, the Poles decided to issue yuan-denominated bonds in China. The significance of the decision was purely political rather than economic, given that the amount was trivial and that the renminbi market offered worse financing terms than issuing debt in dollars or euros.

We may never know why the PiS government thought this was a wise move. What we do know is that Poland’s approach to China is likely to generate frictions in an otherwise excellent partnership with the United States. After all, a cynical read of the Czech or Lithuanian hawkishness on China is that it provides an outsized voice in Washington to two otherwise small and relatively powerless countries. Perhaps because of its size and the staggering depth of its partnership with the United States—ranging from massive military purchases and defense cooperation to nuclear energy assistance and bottom-up cultural, social, and economic bonds—Poland’s policymakers might believe that going out of their way to alienate China is unnecessary.

That would be a short-sighted, naïve view. The importance of China to the United States will only grow, not diminish, as China’s military posturing and economic coercion escalates. And if increasingly influential voices within both parties have their way, all of America’s alliances will soon be judged by how much they contribute to Washington’s overarching aim of confronting the China challenge.

Dalibor Rohac is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a contributing editor with American Purpose. Twitter: @DaliborRohac.

Image: President Andrzej Duda holds a press conference with CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping in Warsaw. (Office of the President of the Republic of Poland)

DemocracyEastern EuropeEconomicsChinaRussiaUkraineU.S. Foreign Policy