Over a few last days two simultaneous geopolitical events took place. It would be fair to treat them separately, but as they have a rare joint actor, we won’t. First, Mike Pompeo announced that there will be a Middle East conference – Iran being the most important topic – in Warsaw. This triggered an outcry in Tehran against Poland, with whom Poland has had traditionally good relations.
Second, Chinese espionage scandal took place in Poland, hitting Huawei and the Chinese diplomacy in Central Europe. This triggered anti-Chinese repercussions in Poland and Chinese criticism of Poland.
What is going on?
First the facts. In May 2018 the United States triggered a new conflict with Tehran by withdrawing from the agreement about the Iranian nuclear program supervision. The new American anti-Iranian sanctions were infuriating for the European diplomats, who continue to work on countermeasures. Yet the Europeans do not attempt to withdraw from the agreement with Iran. Mogherini in January 2019 wrote on her blog: “I confirmed the international community’s determination to preserve the deal and its implementation” and “European countries have started preparations to create a mechanism to let our firms continue their legitimate business with Iran“. A little reminder: the European top diplomat never crosses any of EU member states, Poland included.
A year ago Poland entered into a diplomatic controversy with Israel, another country it traditionally kept good relations with. In order to smooth things out, Polish diplomacy rushed to Tel Aviv and Washington. Apparently, the Americans smelled an opening on how to challenge the European unity. In May 2018, Gazeta Wyborcza reports, the minister of foreign affairs received an offer to host a conference in Warsaw about peace and security in the Middle East. Warsaw was already taken into consideration to host the Trump-Kim summit last year. Clearly, Poland under PiS is welcomed in Washington, DC, as a relative ally among allies, that is. North Korea summit took place in Singapore, now the Iran summit is taking place in Warsaw.
Back in December I have heard from multiple Poland’s MFA sources that Poland “plays to be the closest to the Americans among the Europeans without breaking the EU unity”. Iran was to be – and now is – the showcase which illustrates this new situation.
Poland tries to position itself as a bridge between the Europeans and the Americans on the Middle East problems. It is great to attempt it, but the problems are obvious. Iran reacted with fury: the Polish charge d’affaires was called in, the Iranian minister of foreign affairs called the event “hostile” and some unknown counter-measures have been announced. For now, the festival of Polish movies in Tehran has been cancelled. Better not to plan a trip to Iran if you are a Polish national.
The Polish diplomats play their cards… diplomatically. So closely and so privately, that the news about the Iran event came not from the host, but from the American State Secretary Mike Pompeo. As if it was the Americans, who initiated it. Oh, they are the initiators. Poles are the hosts, not the players between the Americans and the Iranians, but at best between the Americans and the Europeans. As for the Iranians the players are the UN Security Council permanent members (US, Russia, China, France and UK) as well as Germany and the EU.
I am pleased to announce that the U.S. and #Poland will jointly host the Ministerial to Promote a Future of Peace and Security in the Middle East in Warsaw on Feb. 13-14. It will be a forum for countries to address a range of critical issues toward a more peaceful Middle East. pic.twitter.com/IS8oPP4Aqs
— Secretary Pompeo (@SecPompeo) January 11, 2019
The event is scheduled now for 13-14 February 2019. Some 70 delegations have been invited, but not the Iranian delegation. The question is this: Poles probably have enough credit with the Americans and the Europeans for the US-EU potential rapprochement on Iran, but will that be at the expense of the Polish relations in the Middle East?
The same day another news came: a Huawei employee in Warsaw and a French telecom Orange employee (a Polish national) in Warsaw were arrested on the charges of espionage. The details of the case are well covered here. What came afterwards, was interesting. The Chinese foreign office just calmly called for the investigation to be conducted “justly”. The Chinese newspaper Global Times was more outspoken: “If Poland wants to destroy its relations with China, it will lose much more, because China has trade advantage over the country” (Zhao Junjie, Chinese expert) and “is there anything worth stealing by Huawei in Poland?” (Hu Xijin, the newspaper editor).
Huawei has nearly 50% of the Polish telecommunications infrastructure market and after the bombshell arrest last week, officials are debating how to defuse potential security threats without crippling their own network https://t.co/mVUVwkecGI
— The Wall Street Journal (@WSJ) January 14, 2019
The last question is a clear flexing of muscles. “The Pope? How many divisions has he got?”, asked Stalin once, and this is the same argument. To put it bluntly: sometimes it is not about the argument of power, sometimes it is about the power of an argument. In situations like this one behind any European state there is the rest of the Union. It is the European Commission who considers steps against the United States because the US has not lifted its visa regime for some of the EU citizens. Unity is a value Europeans respect highly. There might be talk of disunity and populism, but every six months the European Council renews the Russian embargo despite individual voices contrary by some European governments. There was no major European disunity since the Iraq war; the Americans, the Chinese and the Russians were unable to break the Europeans. Minus the Brexit, that is, whoever did this deserves a credit. What can Warsaw do? For starters the Polish intelligence agency recommended to all the government officials not to use Chinese technology. Huawei faces a real threat of being banned from the Polish IT market. As small as it may be, it is a part of a larger European and trans-Atlantic cake. It may be that a Polish cough can turn into a mortal blow to the Chinese giant. Just speculating.
Western media covered the arrest and perceive the action as an element in a larger proxy war between China and the West about the technological espionage. Recently Canadian nationals were detained in China as a follow up to the espionage arrests in Canada. Huawei is probably among the most technologically advanced company in the world when it comes to the implementation of 5G. Extending their standards in Europe and the US could mean a technological edge for the Chinese company over the American companies in the future. True or not, a local Polish analyst took an interesting turn. Krzysztof Bogacki wrote an op-ed in the IT magazine “Chip” with the following quote:
“when we say ‘spying Chinese’ we should also remember about the ‘spying Americans'”.
As the American ambassador in Warsaw has a major impact on the Polish government, for the better of the companies like Uber and Discovery Communications.
There is one more angle here: for about 6 years now there is a format of cooperation between China and the countries of Central and Eastern Europe called “16+1”. There was some controversy about it in Western Europe; suddenly a major donor appeared in a region it was previously absent. Instead of sharing experiences of how to deal with the new Chinese presence, the approach was that the Chinese presence constituted a threat and competition to Western European businesses and model. The approach was wrong on two accounts: first, the Chinese investments are welcome anywhere, if they are genuine, and they can be genuine if the local governance system is not corrupt or prone to corruption. And second, Central Europe – the one that is in the EU, at least – is a part of the EU and there is no particular reason to see Central Europe as an area of “competition” for influence of the Chinese and the Western Europeans. This war is artificial; Central Europeans’ exposure towards the Chinese investments and political relationship is just new.
The arrest of the Chinese spies is a proof of strength of the Polish state, that is not prone to political corruption from the Chinese. Not to say there is none; clearly there are attempts. Yet the state works as well as Canada to spot the problem and deal with it.
Why it matters? Contrary to the popular belief, the Polish state is more advanced and more nuanced that many partners give it credit for. The Polish civil society has shown that it is capable of forcing a quasi-totalitarian government to talk and make compromises. The Polish state is able to oppose to unwanted practices of a foreign power, as long as it is not an ally. And the Polish state is willing to engage in a delicate game of international diplomacy.
This “new Poland” is not what many may recognise. Yes, it has its problems and limitations. But it has its aspirations, too. Its current strengths would not be possible without the European integration: the economic growth and the security comfort allowed for maximising not only economic power, but also a diplomatic one.
Somehow today the outlook for the rest of the day is positive.
In my next blog entry this afternoon I shall follow the Brexit vote in London from the Warsaw perspective.
Paweł Adamowicz, RIP. We remember [i][i][i]