Just prior to his three-day trip to Beijing on 28 February, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko issued a warning. “We have absolutely no intentions to attack Ukraine. But God forbid aggression against the Belarusian state is committed from the territory of Ukraine. In this case, we will be forced to respond. And I am sure if that happens, we will receive support from the entire international community, including the People’s Republic of China.”
As an experienced politician who has been in power for almost three decades, Lukashenko is fully aware that the Kremlin has not, to date, achieved any of its political and military goals in Ukraine. It is also unlikely that Minsk can completely count on Russia’s protection if the conflict in the Eastern European country escalates and spills over into Belarusian territory. That is why Lukashenko seems unwilling to put all his eggs in one basket. Instead, in order to ensure the nation’s security, he has been stepping up relations with other major powers, especially China.
As a result of his visit to Beijing, Lukashenko and the Chinese President Xi Jinping signed a joint declaration that states Belarus and China will “strengthen cooperation in defence, law enforcement and security, including in the training of military personnel”. The document also calls for cooperation on countering terrorism, as well as a “joint fight against colour revolutions”.
There are fears that the agreement could “pave the way for China to potentially funnel weapons and ammunition through to Russia to assist in the war on Ukraine”. Beijing has repeatedly stressed that it will continue to support Minsk in maintaining its national stability, and will oppose attempts by “external forces to interfere in its internal affairs” or impose “illegal unilateral sanctions on Belarus”. But will China really engage in military cooperation with Belarus, aiming to use Russia’s only ally in Europe to supply Moscow with weapons and ammunition?
The United States has already warned China not to provide Russia with lethal assistance in its war on Ukraine. Beijing rejected claims that it is considering such moves, pointing out that Washington should “stop shifting blame and spreading false information”. At the same time, China has opposed US plans to sell weapons including missiles to Taiwan. However, if the United States does supply arms to the self-ruled island, Beijing will have two options: to turn a blind eye – a move that would be interpreted as a sign of Chinese weakness – or to respond by arming Russia, if not directly, then at least via its ally Belarus.
Hypothetically, Beijing could give Minsk the green light to supply Russia with the Polonez multiple launch rocket (MRL) system, which was developed by the Belarusian Precision Electromechanics Plant (ZTEM) in cooperation with China. The Polonez uses Chinese-made missiles and their transfer to Russia would require Chinese consent. However, the European Union has made it clear that China delivering any weapons to Russia would be an absolute “red line”. Given that the European Union is Beijing’s biggest trading partner, it is not very likely that China will dare to cross that line, since such an action could have a serious impact on its economy.
The very fact that the Chinese online marketplace AliExpress has recently restricted the sale of drones from DJI and Autel brands to Russian customers suggests that Beijing, at least at this stage of the war in Ukraine, is not particularly interested in jeopardising its relations with the West by helping Russia. That is why both Lukashenko and Xi tend to portray themselves as peacekeepers, even though Belarus indirectly participates in Russia’s so-called special military operation in Ukraine by allowing Moscow to use the Belarusian territory for attacks on the neighbouring country, while China continues pursuing a policy of “pro-Russian neutrality”.
Lukashenko’s visit to the People’s Republic will likely help the Belarusian leader to improve his own position in the global arena, rather than allow Beijing to use Belarus for potential arms supplies to Moscow. Over the past two years, following a crackdown on mass protests including the jailing of Belarusian Nobel Peace Prize co-recipient Ales Bialiatski, Lukashenko has been largely isolated on the international stage. Although he met with Russian President Vladimir Putin several times, and participated in numerous Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) meetings, due to his heavy dependence on the Kremlin, the Belarusian president was not in a position to pursue his old “multi-vector” foreign policy.
Open and direct support from Beijing could help Lukashenko, at least to a certain extent, reduce Belarus’ dependence on Russia, especially if China continues approving loans to Minsk and increases its economic activities in Belarus. The People’s Republic has so far financed at least 35 infrastructure projects in the former Soviet republic – the China–Belarus Great Stone Industrial Park being the most significant. However, out of 60 investors in the park, only 33 are from China, while 12 are Belarusian and the rest are companies from other countries. For Lukashenko, the fact that he secured promises from Xi for further investment in Belarus’ economy could be the most important aspect of his trip to China.