Bumpy year ahead in Polish relations with China

The decoupling from China and alignment with the US has been already a fact for more than a year. Polish government relies on the US in the field of security. The weakness of the EU members military capabilities paralleled with the constant threat from Russia will be one of the key factors keeping Poland in the US camp. Warsaw is facing the willingness of some EU members to boost cooperation with Moscow and the scrutiny from EU bodies over the political actions weakening democratic institutions ruling coalition. The current government will use its alignment with Washington as leverage in the political game with Brussel, Berlin, Paris and other EU partners but it will also further influence the policy towards China. The dynamics of the China – Poland relations in this year will be shaped by various factors. The growing rivalry between China and the United States with Washington pressing its allies to align more closely their actions with the White House foreign policy will further draw Poland from Beijing, at least for several months. The level of tensions between China and the US will translate into the shape of Poland’s relations with China. For Beijing, the decision on the limiting of the Huawei’s access to the Polish market can be one of the barometers of the Polish government position.

The economic cooperation with China will likely to be one of the victims of the Polish foreign policy. It’s highly probably that Chinese state-controlled enterprises will put any plans of investing in Poland on hold for some time if the current direction of China-Poland relations is maintained. It’s also likely, that those cooling relation will influence the investment decisions of the private companies. Polish exports can also suffer. The direct retaliation for siding with the US is not very likely. If implemented they will be limited to the several Polish companies with operations in China. However other actions are possible: the extended administrative process of granting access to Chinese markets for Polish products e.g. food, games, pharmaceuticals combined with increased scrutiny of the selected Polish goods imported to China. Favoring competitors from more friendly countries such as Russia can also have a negative impact on the level of Polish exports. As a result, the trade deficit can grow faster. It has been already observed during the first ten months of the last year. It’s harder to predict if Chinese companies will further participate in infrastructural tenders in Poland and if Polish authorities will seek ways to limit their operations.

Turbulent political relations between Warsaw and Beijing can also have an impact on Poland’s position and actions within the 16+1 framework. It can be expected that Poland will further limit its participation in the format’s activities. As several other countries e.g. the Czech Republic, Lithuania, have also expressed concerns on the Chinese activities in Europe, the broad cooperation between CEE countries and China can be downgraded to the bilateral relations between Beijing and remaining China-friendly capitals. It is however not clear yet if the Three Seas Initiative co-founded by Poland and Croatia and comprising altogether of 12 countries in the regions will actually successfully roll out. The TSI is not as broad in scope as 16+1 but comprises set of specific projects in the fields of energy, transportation and digital flows that seem to be more feasible and operational than vague Chinese backed projects.

The difficult relations will probably last for the coming months but the decoupling from China is not preordained. It is still possible for Warsaw and Beijing to improve relations. Eased tensions between Washington would be helpful but due to the bipartisan consensus in the US on the harder stance towards China, it’s not very likely that the rivalry between two powers will soften soon. There two factors that can be helpful in rebooting bilateral relations: more EU aligned Warsaw’s foreign policy and better economic and political offer from Beijing. Brussel, Berlin, Paris are also critical on many aspects of the cooperation with China including obstacles for entering the Chinese market, restrictions on foreign investments, cyber theft and limited access to public tenders for European companies. However, leading EU countries are also angered and threatened by Trump’s unilateralism and protectionism. EU tries to seek the concessions on the Chinese side while maintaining the multilateral and rule-based trade order. Poland can get some benefits and warm relations with China through closer cooperation with European partners and participation in the coordinated efforts to shape the new model of cooperation with China. It can work but only if western capitals, mainly Berlin, will respect the interests of Poland and other CEE countries. And if it happens is an open question.