The political crisis in Belarus that erupted following the August 9 presidential election continues to evolve unpredictably, posing a daunting challenge for Russia in fashioning a response. President Alexander Lukashenko faces mass demonstrations by protesters alleging that the official election results, which showed the president winning a landslide re-election victory, were fraudulent. The outcome of the crisis remains uncertain. As Russia observes the volatile situation, weighing its options for shaping the future of the country, it can expect to receive support from China, which has rapidly expanded its own interests in Belarus.
In recent years, as their relations with the West have deteriorated, China and Russia have strengthened bilateral relations. The relationship falls short of a full political-military alliance, largely because both countries seek to avoid being drawn into the other’s regional conflicts. Nevertheless, both countries have been generally supportive of the other’s position in such disputes. This pattern is likely to hold in Belarus, where China’s interests are largely compatible with those of Russia.
Russia’s primary objective in Belarus is to avoid a “color revolution” resulting in the installation of a new, pro-Western government seeking closer ties with the European Union and NATO. China fully supports Russia in this objective, just as it has joined Russia in opposing color revolutions elsewhere in the former Soviet Union. China also supports Russia’s call for the EU and other outside actors to refrain from intervention in the crisis. China’s interests in Belarus, meanwhile, focus on its recent investments in the country as part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Russia has given its blessing to the BRI, as expressed in a 2015 agreement to link the Silk Road Economic Belt, the continental component of the BRI, with the Eurasian Economic Union, the Russian-led regional integration project of which Belarus is also a member.
China’s largest investment in Belarus is the Great Stone Industrial Park, which is located on the outskirts of Minsk. This project, which Chinese President Xi Jinping once called the “pearl” of the BRI, is China’s largest overseas development project, with an area of 112 square kilometers and the capacity to accommodate 200,000 workers. It has already attracted more than $1 billion in investment from at least 56 foreign companies. Huawei and ZTE, the large Chinese telecommunications companies that have come under scrutiny by the United States and other Western countries, were the first two Chinese companies to establish a presence there. Huawei plans to set up a 5G pilot project in the park. The China Development Bank provided Belarus with a $500 million loan last year, and China has also invested in a variety of infrastructure projects. China’s investments in Belarus are of special significance to the BRI because of Belarus’ position as a potential gateway to European markets, which China views as the ultimate prize in its BRI plans.
To date, China’s investments in Belarus have caused no problems in its relations with Russia. As part of the calculation behind its support for the BRI, Russia has sought to attract Chinese investment for infrastructure projects on its own territory. China’s investments in Belarus are potentially useful to Russia in this effort because they increase the appeal to China of a northern BRI transport corridor passing through Russian territory, traversing Belarus, and extending onward to Europe. China has a strong interest in maintaining Russia’s support for BRI, given potential Russian sensitivity to the expansion of Chinese influence in former Soviet territories. Russia, in turn, may calculate that its participation in a northern transport corridor would enhance its influence over the development of the BRI.
In recent years, the situation in Belarus has been highly favorable for China. Following the outbreak of the Ukraine crisis, Lukashenko sought to expand his foreign policy options in order to limit dependence on Russia. As part of these efforts, he not only worked to improve relations with the EU and the United States, but also sought to attract Chinese investment. China welcomed this opportunity because the crisis in Ukraine, the country that was previously the focus of Chinese efforts to connect the BRI with Europe, forced China to adjust its plans. Belarus became the new focal point. Lukashenko’s overtures to the West had the benefit of improving China’s chances of using the BRI to enter European markets. While cultivating relations with other powers, Lukashenko maintained tolerable, albeit severely strained, working relations with Russia, which viewed the Belarusian president, despite his resistance to closer integration with Russia and his outreach to the West, as a bulwark against a full pro-Western reorientation by Belarus.
These circumstances, which were ideal from China’s perspective, have now come to an abrupt end. Even if Lukashenko clings to power, his ties to the West will be ruptured. The EU and the United States are set to impose sanctions on his regime for its brutal crackdown on protesters. The crisis has forced Lukashenko to seek support from Russia, to which he will be increasingly beholden if he remains in power.
This turn of events is not optimal for China. Xi was among the first foreign leaders to congratulate Lukashenko on his declared victory, reflecting China’s preference for maintaining the status quo, but Chinese officials have subsequently made few public remarks on the developing crisis. Regardless of how the situation evolves, Chinese leaders will seek to protect their country’s BRI investments in Belarus. Although China now faces a more challenging environment in Belarus than before, Chinese leaders nevertheless have good reason to believe that under most scenarios, Russia’s chosen course of action — assuming that Russia is able to control events — will be compatible with their aims.
Under one scenario, Lukashenko would remain in power through his own regime’s suppression of the protest movement. The ensuing breakdown in Belarus’ relations with the West would leave the country increasingly dependent on Russia. Such an outcome would be acceptable to China. A potential color revolution would fail, and Chinese leaders would continue to deal with a Belarusian leader who welcomes close ties and promises to protect Chinese investments. Russia’s professed support for the BRI would guarantee that Moscow’s heightened influence over Belarus would pose no threat to Chinese investments there. One downside for China is that the breakdown of Belarus’ relations with the West might adversely affect China’s efforts to establish Belarus as a bridge to Europe under the BRI. Another downside would be the possibility that such an outcome would simply prolong an untenable situation, leading to greater instability in the future.
Under another scenario, Russia would persuade Lukashenko to resign, offering him a comfortable retirement and personal safety. Russia would maneuver to replace Lukashenko’s regime with a new government that would promise to maintain a pro-Russian orientation and renounce any intention to expand ties with Western institutions. Achieving this objective would not be easy. Although the Belarusian opposition has been careful to avoid the appearance of being a pro-Western movement, its demands for democracy inevitably arouse suspicion in Moscow, especially at a time when Russian President Vladimir Putin faces his own protest movement in the Far Eastern city of Khabarovsk, as well as scrutiny over the poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. If Russia’s efforts in this direction were nevertheless to succeed, then China would accept this outcome, provided that its investments in Belarus remained secure. Despite some domestic opposition to China’s growing presence, a successor regime of this nature would be likely to maintain support for these Chinese investments because of the economic benefits that they generate for Belarus.
The crisis in Belarus differs in important respects from previous post-Soviet disputes in which China offered only limited support to Russia. China was generally supportive of Russia in its war with Georgia but declined to join Russia in recognizing the sovereignty of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two breakaway regions. Similarly, although China was sympathetic to Russia’s view of the origins of the Ukraine conflict, Chinese leaders refrained from supporting Russia’s annexation of Crimea. In both cases, China adhered to the principle of state sovereignty.
In the current crisis, facing a mobilized opposition demanding democracy, Russia is unlikely to attempt to dismember or absorb Belarus. Nor is Russia likely to force Belarus to fulfill the terms of the 1999 Union State treaty, which envisions a close political union between the two countries. However, a potential intervention by Russian security forces to protect Lukashenko’s hold on power or otherwise steer the course of events in Belarus presents itself as another possible scenario. Putin raised such a possibility last week, declaring that a Russian contingent of security forces was prepared to intervene in support of Lukashenko, but only if the protests get “out of control.” Chinese leaders would be likely to support such an intervention, at least privately, especially because it would be done at Lukashenko’s invitation. Whatever concerns Chinese leaders might have about the risks of such an approach, they would refrain from any public criticism of Russia and would most likely offer at least tacit support if the intervention led to an outcome that they viewed as favorable.
If Russia proves unable to control events in Belarus, then China, in pragmatic fashion, would most likely seek to establish working relations with whatever government emerges in Minsk. From China’s perspective, however, a resolution of the crisis would be most likely to serve China’s interests if it is also acceptable to Russia. Despite the emergence of some potential fault lines in the China-Russia relationship following the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, the Belarus crisis is likely to follow the pattern of close cooperation between the two countries that has emerged in recent years.
Brian G. Carlson is a U.S.-based consultant for the Center for Security Studies, ETH Zurich.