China to host Belarusian leader, raising concerns over Ukraine

As Ukrainian officials eagerly monitor developments in diplomatic overtures between Moscow and Beijing, China’s top leader will welcome the president of Belarus – a staunch Kremlin ally – with the pomp of a state visit next week. .

On Saturday, China announced the visit, which will take place over three days from Tuesday, of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, who a year ago authorized Russian forces to use his country as a base for their large-scale invasion. Ukrainian scale. The presence in Beijing of such a close partner of Russian President Vladimir V. Putin is likely to increase international attention and pressure on China’s war-straddling stance.

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

And after Beijing released general principles on Friday to try to end the fighting in Ukraine, Western leaders expressed disappointment at the lack of more specific ideas in their proposal, or any signs that Chinese leader Xi Jinping, might be willing to distance himself from Mr Putin.

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

In a phone call with Belarusian Foreign Minister Sergei Aleinik on Friday, his Chinese counterpart Qin Gang said Beijing wants to deepen ties between the two nations and find common ground on the war. one year of Russia in Ukraine, according to a summary published by the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Mr. Qin noted that when they met last year, Mr. Lukashenko and Mr. Xi proclaimed a “comprehensive all-weather strategic partnership” between their countries. Pakistan is the only other country to have pledged such an august level of official cooperation from China.

Beijing, Mr. Qin said, “opposes the interference of external forces in the internal affairs of Belarus and the illegal imposition of unilateral sanctions on Belarus”, which has been subject to extensive Western sanctions due to his support for Russia.

Yauheni Preiherman, director of the Minsk Dialogue Council on International Relations, said in written responses to questions that “Minsk has long viewed China as a key foreign and economic policy partner and, therefore, has invested heavily time and political effort in deepening the relationship. with Beijing.

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

Mr. Lukashenko appears primarily interested in striking more trade and investment deals, Mr. Preiherman said. “Cooperation in the military-industrial complex can certainly be one of them, especially since the two countries already have a history of cooperation in this area,” he said.

China could derive symbolic and practical benefits from closer ties with Belarus.

“Because Belarus is so close to Russia and the battlefield, Lukashenko has exclusive information about the situation on the battlefield,” Preiherman said. “I’m 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, Mr Lukashenko will be the latest of several authoritarian partners of China who have recently been courted by Beijing – a sign that Mr. Xi is far from making a radical shift in China’s allegiances.

Earlier this month, Xi received Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, telling him that China “opposes external forces that interfere in Iran’s internal affairs and undermine Iran’s security and stability.” Iran,” according to Xinhua, China’s main official news agency. Another visitor to Beijing this month was Hun Sen, Cambodia’s prime minister, an enduring regional supporter of China.

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

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Friday he too wanted to meet directly with Xi to discuss Beijing’s proposals on ending the war. There was no official response to its opening.

The Ukrainian leader has been trying for months to engage in direct dialogue with Mr. Xi, to no avail. But Mr Zelensky’s government has continued to be cautious about what it says publicly about China, fully aware that if Beijing were to play a more robust role in backing the Russian military , it could fundamentally change the momentum on the battlefield.

Shortly after Mr. Lukashenko’s visit was announced, Mykhailo Podolyak, a senior adviser to Mr. Zelensky, issued a statement suggesting that it was not in China’s strategic interest to side with the side of Russia.

“You are not betting on an aggressor who broke international law and will lose the war,” he wrote on Twitter. “It’s short-sighted.”

Belarus has maneuvered cautiously over the past year, providing a safe haven, training ground and launching pad for Moscow’s forces while stubbornly refusing to commit its own military to combat. Ukrainian officials and military analysts said there was no evidence to suggest Russian forces were currently planning a ground assault from the country, but military activity there has been a constant cause for concern.

Officials in Kiev, Washington and other capitals will be watching closely for any signs that China’s political support for Mr Lukashenko is translating into closer cooperation in military affairs and technology, with implications for the fields. Ukrainian battlefields. Belarus produced the “Polonez” multiple-launch rocket launcher, which experts say used modified rockets made in China.

Belarus has developed its own rockets for the Polonez launcher, but still seems eager to gain military support from China, in part to offset Russia’s dominance. In their joint statement signed last year, Mr Lukashenko and Mr Xi promised to “further expand practical cooperation in all areas between the two militaries”.

For Mr. Lukashenko, China can also help offset its reliance on Russia for financial, energy and security aid to maintain its grip on power. Russian suzerainty over Belarus expanded after large-scale protests in 2020 and only grew over the course of the war.

There is no sign yet that Mr Lukashenko will send his own soldiers to fight in Ukraine, as he is likely to fear such a move will provoke a domestic backlash.

When he met Mr Putin in Moscow earlier this month, there were hints of the imbalance in relations between the Kremlin and Mr Lukashenko.

After Mr Putin thanked Mr Lukashenko for ‘agreeing to come’, Mr Lukashenko replied: ‘As if I couldn’t agree’.

While diplomatic courtship between Belarus and China will certainly grow in the weeks and months to come, further shaping the two countries’ arm’s length involvement in Russia’s war, Ukraine stepped up on Saturday . The day began and ended in kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, with air raid sirens.

Ukraine’s military reported on Saturday that Russia had launched 27 airstrikes and 75 rocket attacks on towns and villages in eastern and southern Ukraine in the past 24 hours, but said all attacks aimed at gaining territory had been repulsed.

While Ukraine remains ready for another large-scale missile bombardment, Western and Ukrainian officials have said Russia is short on precision missiles. It is also likely to face a shortage of Iranian-made attack drones it has used in its efforts to penetrate Ukrainian air defenses, Britain’s military intelligence agency said on Saturday.

After a series of Western sanctions last year, China bolstered Russia’s strained supplies of more advanced technologies, such as microchips, with a substantial increase in exports to the country.

Additional reports by Thomas Gibbons-Neff.


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