After Vladimir Putin’s visit to Minsk last year, Western leaders feared he might pressure Alexander Lukashenko to send the Belarusian army to Ukraine. As this did not happen, the interest for Belarus diminished. Not for long, however, since on February 26, an incident took place that brought this former Soviet republic back to the attention of the international community: the damaging of a Russian military aircraft by Belarusian partisans on the Machulishchy airfield near Minsk. A day later, Russia launched a new drone attack on Kyiv, fueling concerns from the Belarusian opposition that the destroyed aircraft was being used to guide drones in Ukraine. On February 28, the Belarusian presidential administration announced that Alexander Lukashenko would pay a visit to China, creating the impression that he would travel to Beijing on behalf of Vladimir Putin, in order to ask his counterpart Xi Jinping to send lethal weapons to Russia. Officials in Washington, Brussels, and Kyiv were now confronted with the possible perspective of Belarus becoming a transit ountry for arms and ammunition, from China to the Russian Federation.
Beyond the context in which it took place (in the midst of Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine), the thirteenth visit of Alexander Lukashenko to Beijing marked an important moment in the evolution of bilateral relations: six months since the adoption of the Samarkand Declaration on the creation of a strategic partnership between the Republic of Belarus and the People’s Republic of China. At the same time, the Belarusian president’s reunion with Chinese officials was another occasion through which he tried to maintain the appearance of neutrality in the conflict, but ended up proving once again his support for Russia. Surprisingly or not, the members of the Beijing establishment adopted a similar stance, demonstrating what was perhaps already apparent, namely the emergence of an axis of evil of China-Belarus-Russia directed against democratic states.
On the first day of his visit to Beijing, Alexander Lukashenko had a meeting with the Chinese Prime Minister. During the discussion with Li Keqiang, the Belarusian president expressed his gratitude for the support that China has given to the Republic of Belarus over the past 29 years of diplomatic relations. The head of state especially praised the construction of an industrial park near Minsk, which he called the “pearl of the Silk Road,” as well as the bilateral trade worth 6 billion dollars. He also congratulated the leader of the State Council on holding last autumn’s congress, which resulted in Xi Jinping’s re-election for a third term as general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party. Alexander Lukashenko appreciated the consistency with which the Chinese establishment pursues its national interests (ignoring the West’s alleged attempts to interfere in China’s internal affairs) and argued that the two countries should intensify their bilateral cooperation for the benefit of both peoples.
The Belarusian president continued to praise China in a meeting with Li Zhanshu, Chairman of the Parliament’s Standing Committee. During the gathering, Alexander Lukashenko stated that “this country is a great power, without which no conflict on the international arena can be resolved.” At the same time, he argued that deepening the relationship with the People’s Republic of China is one of the priorities of Belarusian foreign policy, given that the two states have created a strategic partnership and are campaigning together for the respect of the principles of multilateralism and non-interference of countries in the internal affairs of others.
In the latter part of March 1st, Alexander Lukashenko met with his counterpart Xi Jinping, where he tried to maintain at all costs Belarus’ neutrality in the Russo-Ukrainian war. That is why, arguing the prevention of the transformation of the conflict into a global confrontation, the head of state announced that he supports the peace plan proposed by the leader of the People’s Republic of China. By making such a decision, however, the Belarusian leader once again demonstrated his loyalty to Vladimir Putin, practically justifying Russian aggression against Ukraine. At first glance, the proposal to resolve the Russo-Ukrainian conflict seems pertinent, as it stipulates the cessation of military hostilities, the resumption of peace negotiations, the facilitation of grain exports, and the protection of nuclear power plants. However, the following provisions attest to the true purpose of the Chinese initiative: in the document, Chinese officials argue that “the security of a country should not be achieved by expanding military blocs.” In addition, they are calling for abandoning the Cold War mentality as well as waiving unilaterally imposed sanctions. At the same time, the Chinese authorities refuse to characterize the conflict on the territory of Ukraine using terms such as “war” or “invasion”, instead opting to use the word “crisis” Moreover, while insisting on the need to respect the sovereignty of the two states, they do not offer a solution that would lead to the liberation of Ukrainian territories from Russian occupation. Therefore, with the advancement of this initiative, the Chinese establishment tried to veiledly accuse the West that, through the policy of NATO’s expansion to the east, it actually triggered the war in Ukraine. During the same meeting, the two heads of state adopted a joint statement calling on Russia and Ukraine to end the war and resume peace talks. Moreover, Xi Jinping promised the Belarusian president that he would support his country in its accession process to the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and agreed to deepen the bilateral relationship in areas such as trade, agriculture, industry and biotechnology.
The visit to the People’s Republic of China confirms Alexander Lukashenko’s need for international legitimacy, for recognition as the leader of Belarus, at a time when his country is diplomatically isolated. Not by chance, the Belarusian president wanted to highlight, during the meetings with Chinese officials, the dictatorial character of the two political regimes (visible both by the existence of similar institutions, the Belarusian People’s Assembly and the National People’s Congress, as well as by the attempts of the two leaders to justify the Russian aggression against Ukraine.)
Following the meeting with Xi Jinping, Alexander Lukashenko obtained for Belarus the formalisation of China’s quality as a strategic partner, the promise to support its candidature in order to become a full member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, as well as the development of bilateral relations in several areas of activity. Insufficient, however, to lessen the political and economic dependence of this former Soviet republic on the Russian Federation. After 2020, Belarus lost access to ports in Lithuania, Latvia, Poland, and Ukraine. Thus, the key to Belarusian-Chinese cooperation lies in Moscow.
During his visit to Beijing, the Belarusian president did not discuss with any members of the Chinese establishment the possibility of supplying his country with lethal weapons that it could later deliver to Russia. The implementation of such a scenario, which would imply the use of Belarus as a transit state as a possible circumvention of Western sanctions, is illogical. The reason? All supply routes connecting China to Belarus pass through Russia. Therefore, in the event that the Chinese authorities decide to send weapons to the Russian Federation in order to support its war effort against Ukraine, they could do this either directly, across the common border, or by using as third-party countries the former Soviet republics in Central Asia. Both scenarios thus remove Belarus, a state placed under sanctions for its role as a co-aggressor in the war triggered by Russia on the territory of Ukraine.
The journey of Europe’s last dictator to Beijing was, in fact, a new attempt to prove to the West that, despite the sanctions it imposed on the Republic of Belarus as a result of its support for Russia in invading Ukraine, this state is capable of surviving and improving its relations with other countries of the world. Alexander Lukashenko’s recent visits to the United Arab Emirates, Zimbabwe, and Iran also attest to the reorientation of Belarusian foreign policy towards cooperation with undemocratic political regimes. The priority, however, remains the deepening of the relationship with the Russian regime, whose leader, Vladimir Putin, guarantees the Belarusian president his own political survival.