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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

China to welcome Belarusian leader, raising concerns over Ukraine

President Aleksandr Lukashenko of Belarus and the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, in Beijing in 2016. Their aides say they will be talking about trade and investment in a coming meeting, but analysts say Ukraine will be high on the agenda.

By Marc Santora and Chris Buckley

As officials in Ukraine anxiously watch evolving diplomatic overtures between Moscow and Beijing, China’s top leader will host the president of Belarus — a staunch Kremlin ally — with the pomp of a state visit next week.

On Saturday, China announced the visit, to take place over three days starting Tuesday, for President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus, who a year ago allowed Russian forces to use his country as a staging ground for their full-scale invasion of Ukraine. The presence in Beijing of such a close partner of President Vladimir Putin of Russia is likely to increase international attention, and pressure, over China’s straddling position on the war.

The announcement of Beijing’s latest high-profile official visitor comes a week after the Biden administration accused China of considering sending lethal military assistance to Russia, a claim that Chinese officials have denied. If the Chinese send arms and ammunition to Moscow’s formations in eastern Ukraine, the supplies would come at a time when both sides are running low on much-needed artillery rounds.

And after Beijing issued broad principles Friday for trying to end the fighting in Ukraine, Western leaders voiced disappointment at the lack of more specific ideas in their proposal, or any signs that the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, might be willing to distance himself from Putin.

Lukashenko’s office said in a statement that his visit to China would be a chance to offer a “response to acute challenges in the modern international environment.”

In a phone call with Belarus’ foreign minister, Sergei Aleinik, on Friday, his Chinese counterpart, Qin Gang, indicated that Beijing wanted to deepen ties between the two nations and find common ground over Russia’s yearlong war in Ukraine, according to a summary issued by the Chinese Foreign Ministry.

Qin noted that when they met last year, Lukashenko and Xi had proclaimed an “all-weather comprehensive strategic partnership” between their countries. Pakistan is the only other country promised such an august-sounding level of official cooperation by China.

Beijing, Qin said, “opposes the meddling of external forces in Belarus’ domestic affairs and the illegal imposition of unilateral sanctions on Belarus,” which has been subjected to expanded Western penalties because of its support for Russia.

Yauheni Preiherman, the director of the Minsk Dialogue Council on International Relations, in Minsk, Belarus, said in written answers to questions that “Minsk has long considered China as a key foreign policy and economic partner and, therefore, invested a lot of time and political effort in deepening relations with Beijing.”

“But under the current conditions of unprecedented Western sanctions against Belarus,” he added, “China’s significance for Minsk has grown even further.”

Lukashenko appears mainly interested in securing more business and investment agreements, Preiherman said. “Cooperation in the military-industrial complex can surely be part of that, especially since the two countries already have a track record of cooperation in this realm,” he said.

China may gain symbolic and practical payoffs from closer ties with Belarus.

“Because Belarus is so close to Russia and to the battlefield, Lukashenko has exclusive information about the situation on the battlefield,” Preiherman said. “I am sure this will be of particular interest to the leaders in Beijing.”

Yet while China has tried with limited success to stabilize relations with the United States and other Western countries in recent months, Lukashenko will be the latest of several of China’s authoritarian partners who have recently been courted by Beijing — a sign that Xi is far from making a wholesale shift in China’s allegiances.

This month, Xi hosted Iran’s president, Ebrahim Raisi, telling him that China “opposes external forces interfering in Iran’s internal affairs and undermining Iran’s security and stability,” according to Xinhua, China’s main official news agency. Another visitor to Beijing this month was Hun Sen, the prime minister of Cambodia, a durable regional supporter of China.

Relations between Belarus and China, strained in previous years over Belarus’ frustrated hopes for expanded Chinese investment and trade, have grown closer since Russia’s invasion, according to a research paper by the Eurasian States in Transition Research Center.

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine said Friday that he, too, would like to meet directly with Xi to discuss Beijing’s proposals on ending the war. There has been no official response to his overture.

The Ukrainian leader has been trying for months to engage Xi in direct dialogue, to no avail. But Zelenskyy’s government has continued to tread carefully when it comes to what it says publicly regarding China, keenly aware that if Beijing were to play a more robust role in supporting the Russian military, it could fundamentally shift the momentum on the battlefield.

Belarus has maneuvered carefully over the past year, providing a safe haven, training ground and launchpad for Moscow’s forces while steadfastly refusing to commit its own military to the fight. Ukrainian officials and military analysts have said that there is no evidence suggesting Russian forces are currently planning a ground assault from the country, but military activity there has been a constant source of concern.

Officials in Kyiv, Ukraine, Washington and other capitals will be closely watching for any signs that China’s political support for Lukashenko translates into closer cooperation in military affairs and technology, with implications for the battlefields of Ukraine. Belarus has been producing the “Polonez” multiple-launch rocket launcher, which experts say has used modified Chinese-made rockets.

Belarus has been developing its own rockets for the Polonez launcher, but still appears eager to draw military support from China, partly to offset Russia’s dominance. In their joint statement signed last year, Lukashenko and Xi promised to “further expand practical cooperation in every sphere between the two militaries.”

For Lukashenko, China may also help offset his reliance on Russia for financial, energy and security assistance to maintain his grip on power. Russian suzerainty over Belarus expanded after large-scale protests in 2020 and has only grown over the course of the war.

There is no sign yet of Lukashenko sending his own soldiers to fight in Ukraine, as he is likely to be wary that such a move could cause a domestic backlash.

When he met with Putin in Moscow earlier this month, there were hints at the imbalance in the relationship between the Kremlin and Lukashenko.

After Putin thanked Lukashenko for “agreeing to come,” Lukashenko replied: “As if I could not agree.”

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