In autumn 2013 Chinese President Xi Jinping announced
a new project—or geostrategic vision—now known as the BRI, which aroused
consternation around the world. Soon after, the Chinese scientific and expert
community revealed that this project was essentially about presenting China as
a new global geostrategic player. Thus, returning to its previously held status
as a great center of strength and ideas in the East.

The BRI was met with surprise and mixed feelings by
the West. The most common response posited that a new heavy weight player had
entered the world stage, which naturally aroused the greatest consternation from
the USA—the current global hegemon. In the broader EU there are perceptions of
new opportunities and possibilities arising from the BRI, however the details
are still rather unknown. More often, and increasingly, the perception is that
the Chinese vision has some serious faults and shortcomings.

The most serious of those is that the implementation
of the BRI threatens the breakdown of the EU, which is amplified due to the
lack of a coherent EU strategy towards the BRI and China. Another concern is
the severe FDI asymmetry (€35b to €7.7b) present between China and Europe. Finally, Chinese investors have failed
to engage in greenfield investments in Europe.

The BRI implementation has created a completely new
dynamic in Sino-EU relations, requiring new consideration, reflection and a
real strategy. The EU’s strategic alliance with the USA must also always be kept
in mind during this process. For Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) countries,
the vision of BRI is entangled with China’s 16+1 initiative, which was launched
prior to BRI and was intended to enhance cooperation between these countries
and the PRC.

Originally, the Chinese side in the 16+1 proposed a
vision of “12 projects,” or steps, and allocated a sum of $10b for this
purpose. However, few of these plans have been successfully implemented, due in
part to cooperation problems between the EU and China.

Despite strategic changes to the focus of the
initiative in 2016, the level of political cooperation still precedes the level
of economic exchange. Nonetheless, the most notable achievements so far include
annual summits and the establishment of the China-CEE Institute in Budapest.

The state of research
available so far shows that the countries of the CEE region, like the countries
of the whole EU, are quite divided about Chinese initiatives. The investment
cooperation, which forms the center of Chinese proposals and interests, has not
brought the expected results so far. Moreover, in the CEE region there is a
disparity in investment, with the V4 countries playing a leading role—sharing
over 62% of all Chinese investment.

As for the political aspects, the current 16+1 cooperation
runs almost exclusively on bilateral agreements between each country and China,
and does not improve regional cooperation. In this state of affairs, only
Hungary and Serbia exhibit clear political will for cooperation with China.

For Poland, the BRI became the focus its foreign
policy. Poland is located on the main land axis of the Silk Road from China to
Western Europe, what is an inalienable asset in relations with China. It would
be wise to use this asset properly, yet, so far, both have achieved little success
in the economic sphere, unlike the comparative successes in their diplomatic
relations.

Sino-Polish relations were relatively meager during
the 1990s and 2000s and only began to improve around the turn of this decade. This
growth peaked in June 2016, when the two nations raised the status of bilateral
relations to a comprehensive strategic partnership.  Unfortunately, the agreements accompanying this
status upgrade, and more since, either were not implemented or significantly
slowed down. Relations were not as smooth as expected, with some landmark
government decisions going against China.

Instead, China began to conduct agreements in Poland
at the local level, dealing mostly with self-government authorities. Poland now
plays a pioneering regional role in improving trade relations through the
railway sector. It is estimated that by the end of 2017, approximately 25
percent of all goods arriving by rail to the EU came through Poland. Rail
traffic between China and the EU has increased a hundredfold over the past
decade.

Despite various negative perceptions, the BRI still
offers many potential benefits to the CEE region. Aside from the development of
rail infrastructure, the energy sector has received some Chinese tenders. There
are contracts for powerplants in Romania (€7b), the Czech Republic (€15b) and
Bulgaria.  

The BRI and 16+1 combined mean that Poland’s unique
location is an incredible asset. Therefore, it not only can, but should engage
with China. The degree of this commitment should be constantly measured,
though, due to China’s power asymmetry.

On the negative side, the relational asymmetry that all
CEE countries face with China is a fundamental problem. In economics, this is
exemplified by widespread trade deficits. In 2016, Chinese exports to CEE
totaled $65.17b while CEE exports to china were just $9.72b.

Furthermore, China’s rapid growth towards superpower
status means that relations with it require deep geostrategic reflection.
Closer relations with China may arouse suspicion in major allies and partners
like the US and Germany. It is therefore concerning that nearly every CEE
country lacks any specific strategy towards China. In Poland, regular analyses
of China are carried out, at a comprehensive, but so far insufficient level. It
would be in Polish national interests to establish a special team or institute
dealing exclusively in this area.

From now on, relations with China have an impact on
the balance of power in the world and should be treated as such. Increased
Sino-CEE and Sino-Polish cooperation must be balanced with numerous
considerations regarding potential risks.

Nevertheless, the large-scale concept of the BRI will continue
to be pushed through CEE by Beijing, and Poland is considered an important
partner in these calculations. It would be wise for Poland to use its
considerable advantages properly. There is potential for this, all that is
needed is imagination and the accompanying political will.

Author Details
Bogdan Góralczyk is the director of the European Center of the University of Warsaw.
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Bogdan Góralczyk is the director of the European Center of the University of Warsaw.