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Poland and India: Bracing for a strategic partnership?

Alok Rashmi Mukhopadhyay was Associate Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
Dr. Sebastian Zukowski is a Lecturer at the Adam Mickiewicz University, Poznan, Poland. He is currently a Visiting Fellow at the Institute of Foreign Policy Studies (IFPS), University of Calcutta.
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  • September 27, 2010

    After a hiatus of seven years, the visit of the Polish head of the government to India took place in early September 2010. The visit of Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk to India was planned when Indian President, Pratibha Devisingh Patil, visited Poland in April last year. In fact President Patil’s visit to Poland came after a long thirteen years, the previous such visit being by former Indian President Shankar Dayal Sharma in October 1996. Much proverbial water has in between these visits flown down both the Yamuna and the Vistula. Apart from the recent watershed in Polish politics and national life - the tragedy of the air crash near Smolensk in Russia on April 10, which claimed not only the lives of the incumbent Polish President Lech Kaczyński and the first lady Maria Kaczyńska, but the top military and political leadership of the country - Poland has gradually but certainly been proving itself as an important new member of the European Union (EU) from Central Europe. In May 2004 Poland became a member of the EU along with other Central and East European Countries (CEEC) and in December 2007 it had gained membership of the Common European visa system, Schengen. In 1999 Poland also joined NATO. Poland is not yet a member of the Eurozone but that could again be a blessing in disguise given the present economic downturn rocking some of the Eurozone member states and causing crucial debates amongst member states on the future of the common currency.

    The performance of the Polish economy has been remarkable against the backdrop of the global economic crisis. In the crisis year of 2009, Poland was the only state in the EU to register a 1.8 per cent GDP growth. Amongst the new member countries in East Europe, the most developed country is the Czech Republic, followed by Slovakia, Hungary and Poland, in terms of per capita GDP. States from this part of Europe are considered high-income economies. While Poland's GDP per capita is the lowest amongst these four countries from the region, however, the Polish economy is the biggest economy of them all. According to the Polish Treasury, not only is Poland the sixth largest economy in the EU but has experienced a positive birth rate in 2009.

    In Central and East Europe, Poland is also growing as a main economic partner of India. The positive economic development in Poland was aptly described by India’s former Minister of Trade and Economy, Kamal Nath, during his visit to Warsaw in May 2006, thus: “now as a member of the European Union, Poland can truly act as a gateway to Europe as well as act as a supply base for penetrating markets in the CIS region and the Baltic states.” The general trend is that the volume of Polish-Indian trade is growing from year to year. The total amount of Indo-Polish trade in 2000 was $394 million, and it reached $1.05 billion in 2009. One of the major outcomes of the meeting between Donald Tusk and Dr. Manmohan Singh is that both India and Poland have decided to double the bilateral trade by 2014.

    At present, Poland perceives great potential of investing in Indian sectors like mining, supply of mining machinery, power industry, heavy engineering, waste management, defence industry, pharmaceuticals, food processing, tourism, etc. For its part, India could look out for new opportunities in such areas as textiles, agriculture, food processing, information technology, infrastructure and tourism. Moreover, India especially has the potential to provide skilled labour and white collar jobs like management, computer and English language training in Poland. Last but perhaps most important is that the Polish Prime Minister has also followed the itinerary of some of his European colleagues when he started his Indian tour from Bengaluru where he inaugurated the Polish-Indian Investment Forum. Though there is an atmosphere of enormous goodwill and a positive environment to achieve the potential, some existing problems like the liberalisation of visa regime or direct air connectivity between India and Poland require formal and organisational solutions.

    The most important component of any bilateral relationship, the area of defence and security cooperation, must also be discussed here. During the visit of Prime Minister Tusk, Poland has reaffirmed its support for a permanent seat for India in an expanded UN Security Council. India’s defence cooperation with Poland dates back to the 1970s and Poland also remains one of the major arms suppliers to India. A Memorandum of Understanding on Defence Cooperation was signed between India and Poland in February 2003 while then Polish Prime Minister, Leszek Miller, visited India. In 2004 the Joint Defence Working Group was established to facilitate continuous dialogue in different areas of defence cooperation. The Defence Working Group made its last visit to Poland in April 2010. Similarly, India and Poland have also constituted a Joint Working Group on Counter-Terrorism (JWG-CT). As Polish counter-terrorism and intelligence capability are well recognised, India would definitely benefit from this cooperation.

    However, with this promising picture, a relevant question should also be dealt: Would the growing closeness lead to a strategic partnership like India already maintains with the EU as a collective and with the major member states like France, Germany and the UK? Though currently the term ‘strategic partnership’ is being liberally used in diplomatic parleys and official statements, in practical terms it generally means annual summits at the highest levels, identification of priority areas, sectoral dialogues and a Joint Action Plan delineating the future course for a foreseeable period like five years. Poland is indeed eagerly looking forward to assuming the presidency of the EU Council in the second-half of 2011 and preparation has also started well in advance. India will also have the next annual summit with Poland. Observers of Polish foreign policy would agree that since its membership of the EU and even since the 1990s, it has been the Polish endeavour to present an independent stance in crucial European or trans-Atlantic issues. Poland does not only want to present itself as the leader of the CEEC of which it became a member in 2004, but it also makes sure that its voice should be heard in Brussels according to the country’s size, population, economic performance as well as geopolitical importance. Today Poland is not only one of the outposts of the EU, but along with Lithuania it has a border with the strategically important Russian exclave of Kaliningrad. The Indian Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) has rightly assessed that, “with its transition to a democratic polity and market economy, high growth over the last decade, its size and strategic location and Poland’s deep sense of history and culture, Poland seems destined to play a key role in the region and in Europe's future.” However, in a post-Lisbon Treaty scenario, while the European Council has a permanent president and the European External Affairs Service is supposed to be assertive in the Union’s foreign affairs, it would be interesting to watch how the Polish viewpoint would be received in Brussels, especially presenting the EU on the global stage. India, of course, prefers the bilateral mode in European affairs for various reasons and that too with the major countries in West Europe. However, as the European political landscape is continuously changing and assertive voices from the CEEC are expected to be heard, both India and Poland should seriously think about establishing a strategic partnership. The visit of Donald Tusk would then be considered an important milestone in Indo-Polish relations, if both countries were to seriously think about a strategic partnership.