Belarus’ Lukashenka Goes To China As Ukraine War Tensions Rise – Analysis
By RFE RL
By Reid Standish*
(RFE/RL) — As Western attention focused on the deepening ties between China and Russia and the potential transfer of Chinese military aid to Moscow, Belarusian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka embarked on a three-day state visit to Beijing.
In going to China, Lukashenka — a Kremlin ally and regular interlocutor of Russian President Vladimir Putin — is hoping to offset Belarus’s political and economic reliance on Moscow, which has grown even more dependent on Russian energy, security, and financial assistance following large-scale anti-government protests in 2020 and Minsk’s increased international isolation since the war in Ukraine started.
Arriving on February 28, the trip represents an opportunity for Lukashenka to court Chinese investment and comes as the authoritarian leader has moved carefully during the yearlong war as Belarus has hosted Russian troops and was a launching pad for Moscow’s invasion — though it has refrained from committing its forces to the grinding conflict.
“This visit has symbolic meaning for Lukashenka and it can help lend some credibility to the idea that he isn’t as isolated as he was in the past,” Katsiaryna Shmatsina, an expert on Belarusian politics at Virginia Tech university, told RFE/RL.
But while Belarus’s important relationship with China is set to be the focus of the trip, the visit to Beijing will draw further scrutiny on China’s role in the war following allegations from U.S. officials that Beijing is considering supplying Moscow with arms and ammunition at a time when supplies are running low.
Chinese officials have denied Washington’s claim, but Kyiv and its Western allies will be watching Lukashenka’s trip closely to see if it leads to further deals on military cooperation between Beijing and Minsk given Lukashenka’s proximity to both Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping.
“The only way that Xi would bother to meet with Lukashenka right now would be because something larger is at stake for Beijing and it likely has to do with the war in Ukraine,” Shmatsina said.
Between Moscow And Beijing
Belarus and China have a history of military ties, especially around technology transfers.
In 2015, Minsk announced the completion of its Polonez multiple-rocket-launcher system, which military experts say uses modified Chinese designs and was developed with Chinese help.
The development of the Polonez came about after Moscow refused to sell its Iskander missile system at a discount to Belarus, leading Lukashenka to turn to Beijing in a bid to gain strategic distance from Russia.
Belarus is looking to keep those lines open. In a joint statement at September’s Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit, Lukashenka and Xi vowed to “further expand practical cooperation in every sphere between the two militaries.”
But sweeping Western sanctions placed on Belarus following its crackdown on protesters in 2020 after a presidential election that the opposition and international observers deemed fraudulent has seen Lukashenka become more obedient to the Kremlin after it came to his aid — a trend that has increased following Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine.
Minsk’s past strategy of limiting its dependence on Moscow by balancing between China and Russia has been further offset by the deepening relationship between Xi and Putin.
Both leaders declared a “no-limits” partnership a few weeks before the Russian invasion and China has since increased its trade with Russia, scooping up cheap energy supplies and supplying its neighbor with dual-use deliveries of more advanced technology like microchips, which could potentially be used in weapons.
Some private Chinese companies are already grappling with sanctions and added scrutiny amid U.S. accusations of military transfers to Russia.
Chinese satellite-maker Spacety was sanctioned by Washington in February for supplying satellite imagery of Ukraine to the Wagner Group, a Russian mercenary organization with close connections to the Kremlin that has played a prominent role in the war.
Both Russian and Ukrainian troops are also using Chinese civilian drones — mostly from DJI Technology, the world’s largest manufacturer — for military surveillance and strikes. The company has said that its drones are not sold for military use and that it is trying to limit their sale to war zones.
Zhu Feng, an international affairs professor at Nanjing University, told the South China Morning Post that Beijing could not prevent the possibility of sales of Chinese-made weapons and equipment to Moscow by third parties.
“Beijing and DJI couldn’t rule out the possibility [of third-party acquisitions]. However, once any cases occur, Beijing and the company should make their position clear and help in further investigations to prevent similar situations from happening,” Zhu said.
Minsk And The War In Ukraine
This makes escaping the shadow of the Ukraine war difficult for Lukashenka during his trip.
On February 24, China released a 12-point proposal for ending the conflict. The Chinese position paper was not warmly received in the West but has been supported by countries with China-friendly governments like Kazakhstan, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, and Lukashenka himself.
In an interview with Chinese state news agency Xinhua released prior to his trip, Lukashenka is quoted as saying that Beijing’s proposal is a testimony to China’s peaceful foreign policy and an original step that would have a far-reaching impact.
Lukashenka will also look to translate any goodwill with China into expanded investment and trade, which has become strained in recent years.
Chinese money once poured into Belarus, financing new roads, factories, and rail links with Europe, as well as a sprawling industrial park on the outskirts of Minsk that drew more than $1 billion in investment from 56 foreign companies, including Chinese technology giants Huawei and ZTE.
But Western sanctions on Minsk made Belarus a less attractive partner to China, with Beijing not offering a new project or loan to Minsk since 2019.
Despite the stalled economic ties, China has sought to offer rhetorical support for Lukashenka as he clashed with Europe and the United States.
Xi was the first foreign leader to congratulate Lukashenka after the 2020 presidential election despite international condemnation and, ahead of his arrival in Beijing, Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang told his Belarusian counterpart Syarhey Aleynik that Beijing supports Belarus maintaining national stabilityand that it opposes attempts by “external forces” to interfere in its internal affairs or impose “illegal” unilateral sanctions.
Amid a shared standoff with the West by Belarus, China, and Russia, attention will also be focused on just how much autonomy Lukashenka has, given his dependence on the Kremlin and how that fits in with China and Russia’s evolving ties.
Lukashenka had a long conversation with Putin a few days before flying to Beijing and hints of the expanded imbalance in their dynamic are increasingly on display.
Both countries are signatories to a Union State treaty that has been the source of friction between Minsk and Moscow for decades. Yahoo News recently reportedthat it had obtained leaked documents showing a Kremlin plan to absorb Belarus by 2030 under the guise of the treaty. Lukashenka has since dismissed the report as “nonsense and chatter.”
But even Lukashenka has seemingly acknowledged Moscow’s dominance.
After Putin thanked him for “agreeing to come” to a meeting earlier in February between the two leaders, Lukashenka hinted at his growing subservience.
“As If I could not agree,” he replied.
- Reid Standish is an RFE/RL correspondent in Prague and author of the China In Eurasia briefing. He focuses on Chinese foreign policy in Eastern Europe and Central Asia and has reported extensively about China’s Belt and Road Initiative and Beijing’s internment camps in Xinjiang. Prior to joining RFE/RL, Reid was an editor at Foreign Policy magazine and its Moscow correspondent. He has also written for The Atlantic and The Washington Post.