The latest People’s Republic of China–Central and Eastern European Countries (China-CEEC) summit took place online, on February 9, after a one-year break caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. For the first time, the high-level meeting was hosted by Chinese President Xi Jinping, aimed at providing the initiative with new impetus in light of various difficulties China has been facing in the region. The China-CEEC multilateral platform was officially inaugurated in 2012, in Warsaw. The initiative, also referred to as “17+1,” is made up of 11 CEE European Union member states, 5 Western Balkan countries and Greece, a latecomer to the initiative (joined in 2019) and also a member of the EU. The addition of Greece to the format was dictated in large part by the country’s strategic port of Piraeus, where Chinese shipping company COSCO has made large-scale investments. Its inclusion is essential if the initiative is to completely cover the land between the Baltic and Mediterranean Seas—crucial in the wider context of the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and planned transport hubs in the region. Undoubtedly, Beijing treats the 17+1 initiative as part of its larger strategy toward the EU and the United States, which is also engaged in the region (see EDM, October 29, 2020) and remains the main point of reference for China’s foreign policy. That is why Chinese engagement in the region is often described as building a Trojan Horse(s) in the EU suburbs or even inside the EU and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
After years of intensified dialogue and cooperation between the CEEC and China, the enthusiasm of some of these regional states has tempered, as exemplified by Romania’s abrogation of a deal with the China General Nuclear Power Corporation to build nuclear reactors at Cernavodă or some regional decisions to limit the Chinese role in the development of their 5G infrastructure (New Eastern Europe September 7, 2020; Icds.ee, August, 2020). Clearly, the Chinese government perceived these change as the result of US pressure on the region: Washington “aligns its minions to smear, attack and repress the Chinese company,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying alleged last summer (Fmprc.gov.cn, July 16, 2020). Although Hua’s remarks implicitly encompassed the region’s largest country, Poland, Beijing has never overtly used harsh rhetoric toward Warsaw directly. Even when addressing serious problems in bilateral relations—such as the 2019 arrest of a Huawei employee suspected of espionage activities, Warsaw’s raising of objections to the EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment, or the Polish-Taiwan agreement on Legal Cooperation in Criminal Matters—the Chinese government commented on them in a notably neutral way (Pism.pl, January 18, 2021; Osa.uni.lodz.pl, February 3, 2021).
In recent years, Chinese-Polish relations resembled a sine wave, with splendid moments followed by rapid deterioration. As far back as 2016, Presidents Xi and Andrzej Duda signed a strategic partnership declaration in Warsaw (Prezydent.pl, June 20, 2016); and other bilateral agreements were signed at the governmental level. To date, Poland remains one of only four countries of the 17+1 format that have been visited by the Chinese leader. Notably, Poland has high aspirations of becoming a regional transport hub, with the Central Communication Port infrastructural mega-project (a planned road, rail and airport hub, to be located between Warsaw and Łódź) as the centerpiece. Thus, Warsaw was quite enthusiastic about the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative announced by Xi in 2013.
The first sign of problems in Chinese-Polish relations emerged already in 2017, when Poland’s Military Property Agency refused to sell land rights to Chinese investors (Dziennik Gazeta Prawna, January 24, 2017) who wanted to build a transshipment terminal as part of the “corridor to China” railway. But bilateral relations truly deteriorated in 2019, following the abovementioned arrest of a Huawei employee for alleged espionage (see China Brief, February 1, 2019). At the same time, Polish authorities—in light of the United States’ hawkish policy under the Donald Trump administration—also adopted harsher rhetoric toward Beijing: Warsaw started calling for “transatlantic unity on China” (Atlanticcouncil.org, July 21, 2020), while Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki openly declared, “not only Moscow but also Beijing poses a threat to the free world” (Berliner Morgenpost, August 23, 2019).
Even though, China faces some difficulties in Central and Eastern Europe, it has not backed away from trying to engage the region via its 17+1 platform—and notably, Poland has not backed off this grouping either. Indeed, Poland was one of only five CEE countries that positively reacted to Beijing’s call to elevate the format to a presidential level (Ceias.eu, February 12, 2021). Poland, like most of its CEE neighbors, is hoping balance its trade with China, boost the export of its agricultural goods to the Chinese market, and maintain a level of cooperation in the infrastructural sector. That said, Warsaw’s motivation behind continuing to participate in the 17+1 format extends beyond economics. Namely, Poland has ambitions to become a regional leader of the region; and despite its previously restrained declarations on the subject, its government is becoming more and more open in describing its expected role. On the occasion of the most recent China-CEEC summit, therefore, President Duda said that “no important event concerning the CEE can take place without the presence of Poland” (Prezydent.pl, February 9). Of course, such regional leadership aspirations will additionally require Poland to be broadly recognized as an active and effective member of key intra-CEE initiatives like the Visegrad Four, Three Seas Initiative (see EDM, October 29, 2020) or the Lublin Triangle (see EDM August 5, 2020).
The willingness to engage with the 17+1 format notwithstanding, security matters remain the focal point of Poland’s foreign policy. In this regard, Polish-US relations are a top priority for the ruling elites in Warsaw since they view Washington as Poland’s most reliable security guarantor. This prioritization of security meant that Warsaw was ready to sacrifice its relations with Beijing in recent years, even though China does not directly threaten Poland. Yet the current Polish authorities—whose relations with the US under former President Trump were favorable—seem uncertain about the possible level of continued cooperation with Washington under President Joseph Biden. In this context, the Polish government appears to be trying to use China as a kind of counterbalance, which might be employed to avoid expected political pressure from the new US administration. And these are circumstances Beijing is surely aware of.