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Decoding China’s Foreign Policy Approach Toward Belarus

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Decoding China’s Foreign Policy Approach Toward Belarus

Belarus’ President Alexander Lukashenko recently visited China for the second time this year. What’s behind the deepening partnership?

Decoding China’s Foreign Policy Approach Toward Belarus

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko (left) shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping during a meeting in Beijing, China, Mar. 1, 2023.

Credit: President of the Republic of Belarus

In a geopolitical move echoing their resilient ties, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko embarked on his second visit to China this year. Lukashenko, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s close ally, met with Chinese President Xi Jinping on December 4. Amid biting Western sanctions and Belarus’ diplomatic isolation over its participation in the invasion of Ukraine, China has been elevating its ties with Belarus, recently upgraded to an “all-weather comprehensive partnership” a term mutually embraced by Beijing and Minsk to characterize their evolving alliance. 

Historically, China viewed Belarus as a strategic transit point for its goods into Europe, envisioning strengthened EU ties. However, now Belarus is faced with isolation, sanctions, and the looming threat of border closures. Lukashenko’s latest visit begs the question: What motives are driving the convergence between China and Belarus?

The Belarusian leader’s late February visit to China, close on the heels of the one-year anniversary of the invasion of Ukraine, echoed with significance. Amid the ceremonial welcome with gun salutes and military honors, both sides engaged in discussions and signed agreements totaling over $3.5 billion. This substantial economic pact signaled not just a strategic partnership but also underscored Belarus’ intention to pivot eastward, a move remarked upon by Chinese experts who highlighted Minsk’s special importance to its ties with Beijing. 

Following Lukashenko’s China trip, Putin’s announcement of the deployment of nuclear weapons to Belarusian soil added another layer of complexity to the geopolitical landscape. The deepening alliance between Minsk and Beijing aligns with a broader trend: a year-long deterioration in Belarusian ties with Western nations. Belarus has been frozen out from its neighbors to the west, particularly after allowing Russia to use Belarusian soil as a staging ground for troops and equipment before Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

The Belarusian president received a warm welcome in Beijing during his December visit, which was not announced in advance. Lukashenko, being deliberately vague in his public comments, spoke of scientific cooperation and substantial business projects. China is willing to continue to strengthen strategic coordination with Belarus, firmly support each other, promote practical cooperation, and deepen bilateral relations,” Xi said at a conference.

In the wake of the Ukraine conflict, China and Belarus have forged stronger ties. A notable aspect is China’s abstention from participating in sanctions against Russia and Belarus, highlighting their aligned stance. Beyond being a steadfast ally, Belarus has transformed into an economic partner for both China and Russia. Undoubtedly, China views Belarus as a crucial ally in its Belt and Road Initiative, and reciprocally, Minsk is keen on exploring fresh markets for its export-focused economy. In line with this symbiotic understanding, it comes as no astonishment that over 70 Belarusian enterprises and organizations actively engaged in the China International Import Expo held in Shanghai last month.

The frequency of meetings between Xi and Lukashenko, totaling 13 since 2013, underscores the depth of their economic interests. This robust relationship is further evidenced by the substantial growth in trade between the two nations. In 2022 trade reached $5.08 billion, while it topped $5.83 billion in the first eight months of 2023 alone. Exports from Belarus to China experienced a surge of 77 percent.

As expected, the recent meeting between Xi and Lukashenko placed economic cooperation in the spotlight, underscoring the interdependent nature of the Belarus-China partnership and emphasizing the critical role of economic collaboration in steering their relationship. During the meeting, Xi conveyed the importance of enhancing cross-border transportation to foster economic and trade endeavors, notably the China-Belarus Industrial Park, and advocated for stronger people-to-people connections. Lukashenko’s strategic objective revolves around dispelling any perception of isolation on the global stage, using economic ties to affirm Belarus’s relevance in international affairs.

The basis of the current bilateral cooperation can be traced to the 2013 launch of the Belt and Road Initiative, which Belarus joined in 2014, one of the first five countries in the world to do so. Through the BRI, China aims to expand its economic and political influence while simultaneously gaining access to the most desirable international markets through the construction of contemporary physical infrastructure, such as pipelines, highways, and railroads. Belarus is seen as one of China’s most important partners in this project due to its proximity to the EU, sophisticated rail system, and membership in the Eurasian Economic Union.

Belarus views China not only as a major global player but also as a pivotal ally and a cornerstone of its security. The necessity of political backing from China, which staunchly supports Lukashenko’s political trajectory, is paramount. China, a vocal critic of Western sanctions on Belarus, including those imposed on its aviation sector post the Ryanair incident, consistently rebuffs Western demands concerning human rights and what it deems as “interference of external forces” in Belarus’ domestic affairs. This alignment underscores the depth of the Belarus-China relationship, where political synergies prevail over external pressures.

In his meeting with Xi last week, Lukashenko expressed his nation’s earnest desire for the sustained growth of China, underscoring its positive impact on global peace and advancement. Belarus reiterated its dedication to fostering amicable ties with China, expressing eagerness for increased high-level interactions, mutual support, expanded collaboration, and heightened international and multilateral strategic alignment. 

Xi reciprocated, stating that China is open to bolstering coordination and collaboration with Belarus in various multilateral platforms, including the United Nations and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (which Belarus is expected to join in 2024). Both leaders pledged to advance the implementation of Chinese initiatives such as the Global Development Initiative, Global Security Initiative, and Global Civilization Initiative, in addition to contributing to the establishment of a global community with a shared future.

China emphasizes a high value on Belarusian solidarity in international forums, particularly when it comes to sensitive issues like Hong Kong, Taiwan, Xinjiang, Tibet, the South China Sea, and the disputed origins of the COVID-19 pandemic. The 2022 joint declaration between Belarus and China underscored Minsk’s staunch commitment to the “One China” principle, taking an unequivocal stance against any notions of Taiwanese independence. Economically, the consistent supply of Belarusian potash – an important ingredient in fertilizer – remains a significant concern for China, a concern further complicated by the impediments posed by Western sanctions.

Lukashenko is pursuing his strategic agenda in China, a characteristic move for him. The outcomes of the alliance and the ultimate benefit of this friendship remain contingent on future developments.