By Jarosław Szczepankiewicz
What a long way Poland and the Philippines have traveled together! From the establishment of the first Honorary Consulate of the Republic of Poland in Manila on May 2, 1938, with the appointment of Frederic Edward Zuellig, a Swiss entrepreneur in the Philippines, as the Honorary Consul of the Republic of Poland, to the development of lasting diplomatic, economic, cultural, scientific and development cooperation after 1973, together with the formal opening of the seat of the Polish Embassy in Manila in 2020; from the irregular arrivals of Polish travelers, researchers and journalists to the Philippines to the mass influx of Polish tourists who want to discover the exotic beauty of the Philippines.
Poland and the Philippines entered the 21st century as sovereign and independent states that want to strengthen their political position by establishing mutually beneficial diplomatic and economic relations. Poland and the Philippines are two countries that are proud of their history and achievements. Two countries build their mutual relations by opening the way to full use of the existing potential and getting to know each other by breaking stereotypes. Although they are separated by a geographical distance (Europe versus Asia), both countries have Christian roots, a constant need to fight for independence and an exceptional passion for freedom.
The historical development of Poland’s relations with the Philippines was favored by the lack of superpower ambitions of both countries, common fate during World War II and support for the supremacy of international law, universal security and balance of power. Poland’s interest in the Philippines has never had an instrumental aspect, as Poland has never had overseas colonies. Poland, establishing partnership relations with the Philippines and engaging in promoting the interests of smaller states in their relations with superpowers on international forums, is perceived in the Philippines as a desirable and friendly partner.
The rapprochement of Poland and the Philippines is not only a matter of Poland’s presence in the history of the Philippines, it is also a complex geopolitical and cultural context shaping the motivations of Poles associated with the Philippines, and there were many of them: Christianity, the desire to discover the world, missionary activity, the desire to get rich, scientific research, seeking trade and diplomatic contacts and two world wars. They were people of different temperaments and professions: diplomats and missionaries, businessmen and scientists, artists and travelers, journalists and soldiers.
Historically, the arrival of Poles to the Philippines has never been massive. The missionary spirit guided the clergymen, Father Wojciech Męciński (1598-1643), Father Jan Chryzostom Bąkowski (1672-1732), Saint. Maximilian Kolbe (1894-1941), Father Cantius Zdzisław Kobak, known in the Philippines as “The Historian of Samar”, (1930-2004) and St. John Paul II (1920-2005). There were also Poles who sought their fortune in business before World War II: WładysławSielski (1890-1970) ran the Sielski Sweet Shop Co. in Manila. Edgar Piątkowski (1870-1949) was the chief engineer of the Manila Railroad Company, Zbigniew Dunikowski (1889 – 1961), called “The Last Alchemist” was the technical director of Masbate Goldfields Inc., working on the “Metalex” process to increase the efficiency of gold mining from gold deposits. Outstanding Polish travelers and explorers came to the Philippines for a short time: Paweł Strzelecki (1797-1873), explorer of Australia; Jan Kubary (1846-1896), explorer of Oceania. Famous Polish musicians gave concerts in Manila with success: Aleksander Tansman (1897-1986), composer, author of the piano miniature “Les Iles Philippines”; ArturRubinstein (1887-1982), virtuoso pianist; Artur Dudkiewicz, a well-known Polish contemporary jazz pianist; Maestro Grzegorz Nowak is appointed the new music director and chief conductor of the Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra in 2023. A long list of Polish-sounding U.S. Army servicemen who died fighting in the Philippines is available at the Manila American Cemetery and Memorial; sergeant Walter Kwieciński (1914-1988), was the commander of the last active mortar on Corregidor, the last bastion of defence of the Philippines against the Japanese invasion in 1942.
Fifty years ago, on September 22, 1973, Poland and the Philippines established diplomatic relations through the exchange of notes between the Republic of the Philippines and the Polish People’s Republic. The agreement was signed by the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Poland, Stefan Olszewski, and the Secretary of Foreign Affairs of the Philippines, Carlos Peña Romulo, at the office of the Mission of the Republic of the Philippines to the United Nations in New York. This was pioneering work done during the presidency of Ferdinand E. Marcos. Now, that tradition is continued by his son, Ferdinand R. Marcos Jr.
The way to opening diplomatic relations was paved by the signing on March 11, 1972 by President Ferdinand E. Marcos of Executive Decree No. 384, allowing for direct trade between Poland and the Philippines. Until then, the Philippines was a strongly anti-communist country, and relations with the countries of the then socialist bloc were minimal and strictly limited. After 1989, the conditions in which Poland conducted its hitherto foreign policy changed completely. Poland’s accession to NATO (1999) and accession to the EU (2004) resulted in a change of priorities and international commitments. Polish diplomacy has been freed from the straitjacket of common interests of countries of “socialist orientation” from the times of the “Cold War”.
The decision made by Polish diplomacy to open an Embassy of the Republic of Poland in the Philippines in 2018 in order to strengthen cooperation has always been in line with the values behind today’s motto of Polish diplomacy: “Solidarity for freedom”. This concise concept should be interpreted in the light of the importance that the historic Solidarity movement has for Polish national identity and foreign policy. It is on this concept that Poles base their attitude towards the Filipinos, as well as the axiology of Poland’s foreign relations.
Although relations between Poland and the Philippines are developing naturally, this process is accompanied by the policy of the Polish government. In the Philippines, economic policy efforts focus on the green economy, smart technologies, security and defence, IT and healthcare. Over the last 35 years, Poland has become a highly developed democratic country. Being a member of the European Union, it ceased to be a recipient of security and economic assistance, but became a country providing them on a global scale. In addition to economic bilateral cooperation, the Pole is supported by the Philippines from the general EU budget, to which Poland is the sixth largest contributor in terms of the amount of contributions.
The Polish-Filipino friendship, born in the last 50 years, and international solidarity, have given both friendly countries a solid foundation not only for economic development, but also for cooperation in the field of spreading democracy, human rights and the rule of law. Poland can offer the Philippines its experience in the country’s political transformation, and Poles know perfectly well that modernization is not an easy process. Poles remember the hard times they went through not so long ago, which is why today, when entering into business interactions, they can draw on their own experiences. Poles and Filipinos have experience of political and economic transformation, which facilitates their mutual business relations and leads to mutual understanding. Polish diplomacy, whenever possible, always combines support for business with pro-development activities.
The Philippines is our very important partner for cooperation in this part of the world. In 2018, the Polish Embassy in Manila resumed operations and became fully operational in 2020. In 2019, the Foreign Trade Office of the Polish Trade and Investment Agency was also launched to handle the ever-growing demand for assistance in establishing B2B contacts and providing information on opportunities economic and investment projects both in Poland and in the Philippines. Poland supported the Philippines, which needed help during the difficult time of the pandemic, with nearly 550,000 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine.
Despite the negative impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the economies of both countries, our bilateral trade remained strong. This trend, although undoubtedly positive, does not fully exploit the potential of our trade cooperation, especially taking into account the size of our economies and the potential of both markets.
Students from the Philippines in Poland are an important factor in bringing the two countries closer together. Every year, about 100-200 Filipino students go to study in Poland. Currently, there are about 15-20,000 Filipino employees in Poland. All of them are informal ambassadors of an exotic for us Christian country located somewhere in the antipodes of Poland in Asia.
Poles more and more often dream of traveling to the Philippines, about which they know little. They discover the Philippines as one of the most attractive places on earth in terms of landscape diversity, rich history and valuable monuments. The growing activity of Polish travel agencies is proof of the steady increase in the popularity of the exotic Philippines among Polish tourists. Poles will travel more and more often, and the Philippines may become one of their favorite tourist destinations.
Chicken Galantina, a popular Filipino Christmas stuffed chicken, arrived in the Philippines from Poland; The Filipino mazurka is originally a Polish folk dance. As it turns out, Poland and the Philippines have more in common than it seems at first glance.
(Jarosław Szczepankiewicz is currently the Chargé d’Affairs of the Embassy of Poland in Manila)