Home / news / China on Russia’s Borders How does Beijing’s growing presence in Belarus create a new conflict?

China on Russia’s Borders How does Beijing’s growing presence in Belarus create a new conflict?

In the outskirts of the Belarusian capital “Minsk”, a giant building appears before the eyes as an independent world in its own right, a world in which the faces of 34 international companies of various nationalities such as Russians, Americans, Germans, Austrians and others are reflected, but one nationality stands out more than others in that region, which is the Chinese nationality, so we find that Thousands of Chinese workers are scattered in the industrial zone known as the “Great Stone”, or the “pearl” of the Belt and Road Initiative as described by Chinese President Xi Jinping himself, while lampposts draped with Chinese flags and offices where pictures of the president hang Chinese more about this presence.

Perhaps among what many people do not know about the countries that are directly related in the minds of many to neighboring Russia is that this particular industrial zone was built as the largest external development project for China, located on an area of ​​112 square kilometers of Belarusian land, and it accommodates 200 thousand workers whose construction and presence constitute a hub for trade Multilateralism, in which Chinese giant companies such as Huawei and ZTE are granted tax exemption, which facilitates their access to local markets in Russia and Central Asia, away from the scrutiny that these companies are subject to by the United States and other Western countries.

But after 12 years of this partnership between Beijing and Minsk, which is just around the corner from becoming a logistical, financial and innovative center platform for the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative, from which it takes off towards the threshold of the European Union; What threatens the success of this project and the entirety of the Chinese projects in Belarus, including what is related to the difficulties imposed by the “Covid-19” epidemic in terms of slowing the dynamics of commercial communications and obstructing the implementation of many projects in the industrial zone, including the most dangerous and specifically related to the situation of the Belarusian president. Alexander Lukashenko, “who succeeded in attracting China to take advantage of the strategic position of his country, as he faces” the last European dictator, “as he is dubbed, a real threat that may end his three-decade rule. From the ninth of last August until the current October, the popular protests continue. It rejects the election results that gave this president the sixth term in his rule since 1994.

An opposition rally to protest the presidential election results in Minsk, Belarus

At the same time, those protests opened the field more for “Western interference in the country’s affairs,” as Moscow says, which Belarus considers a part of. It considers the Western and American position condemning the suppression of the protests as a move that aims mainly to destabilize the internal political situation, especially since Washington has threatened With sanctions against Belarus, its officials made harsh statements diplomatically against Lukashenko and his regime, just as US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo denounced the country’s elections, describing them as “not free and fair”, and the former Vice President and the current Democratic candidate for the presidential elections, “Joe Biden,” spoke of “inevitable electoral fraud” Lukashenko must leave his post. “

The above shows that the geopolitical conflict that occurs throughout the countries of the former Soviet Union, especially in Belarus, makes Moscow feel in real danger of a military coup that might displace its ally Lukashenko and bring in another president loyal to the West, just as it happened in the Ukrainian crisis in 2014 when the demonstrations broke out in response. On the rejection of the Ukrainian President at the time, “Viktor Yanukovych”, an agreement that would secure more economic rapprochement with the European Union, preferring rapprochement with Russia, which were demonstrations that ended with his ouster now residing in exile in Russia. In the East European.

If the Russian efforts to stop the internal protests in Belarus do not succeed, President Vladimir Putin’s regime may lose another area of ​​influence on its borders, but the Russian concern is not limited to a Western incursion, but extends to trying to reduce China’s influence in an important geographical area within the plans of the Belt Initiative. And its own path, which is the influence that these demonstrations also threaten, and this serious threat may prompt Beijing to move to protect its interests without Moscow, which may paint a new area of ​​conflict between the two largest powers in Asia, a conflict that may harm Putin’s vision, perhaps more than he himself imagines.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko

Relations between Belarus and China have clearly developed in the last eight years despite a history of relations between them dating back about 25 years, and this development came as a result of raising the level of the comprehensive strategic partnership in 2013, as Beijing has since then provided continuous support for infrastructure projects in Belarus, such as establishing New roads, and railway connections, and providing services to achieve the general development of the country through the establishment of major factories, etc., making China the third largest trading partner of Belarus.

Beijing also did not ignore technological cooperation with Minsk, as the two sides signed an agreement to establish a research and development center that aims to focus on smart technologies and artificial intelligence systems. As for military cooperation between the two countries, it will remain one of the areas in which the two countries have achieved the most development that has greatly strengthened defense and security relations, China provides military technical assistance to Minsk and they participate in important military exercises, and China assists the Belarusian army in developing its missile and satellite capabilities and carrying out anti-terrorism activities. Beijing also provides the Belarusian forces with military equipment that Belarusian soldiers are subject to training in maintaining and operating in Chinese factories. The State Military and Industrial Committee of Belarus and the China Space Science and Technology Corporation into joint production of multiple launch missile systems.

On the other hand, Belarus was a small market far from the Chinese border that lacks the large natural resource reserves that attract China in any other country in general; It was an important station for China to serve the Belt and Road Initiative, as Belarus, a member of the Eurasian Economic Union (EE), is in a distinguished strategic location that brings it closer to the European Union, and creates an opportunity for China to save itself from the decline in Western demand for its production following the global financial crisis, by focusing on European countries Eastern countries, including Belarus, are almost the only European country that maintains to some extent the “socialist option” that satisfies the Chinese approach strongly influenced by the Marxist-Leninist ideology.

Among the important points is what was stated in the report of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute of an explanation of China’s benefit from deepening its relationship with Belarus, which is relatively clear. Belarus may be a very small cog as a commercial partner to a giant economy like China, but its geographical location makes it a major link Between the Asian and European extensions of the Belt and Road Project, Belarus constitutes a valuable economic and political starting point for Beijing as well in the larger and more profitable Russian and Central Asian markets.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko

Returning to the country’s independence in 1992, this independence did not end Moscow’s consideration of Belarus as part of it, as the Kremlin continued to provide military and economic support, as it provided its direct interventions on demand, provided loans, and secured crude oil and natural gas. In addition to the above, Belarus is still a member of groups led by Russia such as the Eurasian Economic Union and the Collective Security Treaty Organization, which is a military bloc dominated by Moscow, and Moscow has continued to tighten its grip on the strategic partner in terms of geopolitics and geopolitics, and is trying to gain more by seeking to push The capital, Minsk, to fulfill the terms of the 1999 Union State Treaty, which provides for a close political union between the two countries, a union that allows Russia to have more influence in the Belarusian interior, such as building a Russian military base there, something Moscow has not been able to achieve so far.

The previous situation made Lukashenko, who kept appearing as a friend to Moscow like other leaders of the former Soviet Union, likely made him wary of deeper Russian interventions, so he has refrained from officially recognizing Crimea as part of Russia, and has so far managed to evade Kremlin pressure To host a Russian military base as we mentioned, and is striving to find an alternative to strategic dependence on Russia, whose consumer market absorbs 44% of Belarusian exports, and is moving towards deepening other partnerships that give his regime more room for maneuver away from Moscow, and for this purpose Lukashenko has launched initiatives to the West from He postponed pressure for Russian concessions, consolidating his authority at home, and out of the Kremlin’s grip on his regime.

But what happened is that the existing Belarusian protests changed Lukashenko’s calculations and threatened his continuous plan over the past years towards improving relations with the European Union and Washington, so that Western support, which removed him in front of several obstacles, in addition to the concern that Western investors are concerned about the economic climate of the country, where it is an obstacle. Human rights in the face of Belarus improving its relationship with the United States and Europe, which previously linked the easing of the sanctions regime imposed on Belarus after Russia’s annexation of the Crimea peninsula in 2014, and measures to distancing Lukashenko from Moscow, and the reduction of repression at home.

In the end, Lukashenko realized the importance of not remaining captive to relations with Washington and Europe as well, to focus more on flirting with China in order to maximize economic opportunities and diversify his strategic options, and most importantly, the relationship with Beijing will give the Belarusian leader greater freedom to act in dealing with both Russia and the West. Minsk hopes that Beijing will help it overcome the impasse in which it found itself vacillating between East (Russia) and West (Europe), given that Beijing is not part of the bilateral geopolitical tensions in Eastern Europe (between Russia and the West), which constitute a fundamental challenge to the sovereignty of Belarus. And its ability to maneuver diplomatically, and Beijing, which is thousands of miles away from the country, and it is difficult to seek to treat it implicitly as a boycott, and does not pursue human rights institutionally and internationally to the same extent as the West; Lukashenko will not often demand an easing of repression in his country, so Chinese President Xi Jinping was the first leader to congratulate Lukashenko on his victory in the recent elections, and he had previously called on China to respect the sovereignty of Belarus and the choice of its people in dealing with political instability. Indeed, Chinese Ambassador to the United Nations Zhang Jun said In a meeting of the organization, what is happening in Belarus “is the internal affairs of the country, and does not pose any threat to regional or international peace and security,” as he put it.

On the other hand, Beijing, which is ambitious to strengthen its influence in Europe, looks to Belarus, which is strategically located as an important launch pad on the doorstep of the European Union for the Belt and Road Infrastructure Initiative, as it looks to gain a foothold in Europe by using the investment-hungry Eastern European countries, and the Chinese have found Lukashenko Who does not stop visiting their countries or receiving senior Chinese officials is the head of a Western socialist bridge in comparison with his direct predecessors.

Just as Moscow opposed color revolutions in various places in the former Soviet Union, it is struggling now to avoid a “color revolution” in Belarus, a revolution that, according to the Kremlin’s expectations, may lead to the installation of a new pro-Western government, whose leaders tend toward closer relations with the European Union. And NATO.

To a large extent, Beijing agrees with the aforementioned Russian endeavor, as it realizes that any deterioration in Belarus, which is working to use it as a starting point for the European market, threatens its existing plans and projects, as the rise of a pro-Western government in the country may harm the European components of the Belt and Road initiative, which means a setback for national interests. Although the presence of a Belarusian government not headed by Lukashenko does not mean a threat to profitable deals with China, the voice of concern about the increasing Chinese debt remains present, Beijing may face voices warning about the price of Chinese influence in Belarus, according to the figures of the Belarusian Finance Ministry, since 2013 it has attracted Belarus $ 3.6 billion, $ 10.8 billion and $ 2.6 billion in loans from China, Russia, and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, respectively.

Even with the scenario of Lukashenko remaining, the collapse of relations with Europe, and then the focus of dependence on Moscow, a China that welcomes closer relations with Lukashenko, who has pledged to protect its interests, will be affected by any Western sanctions imposed by the European Union and the states on Belarus due to the brutal crackdown on protesters.

In the current crisis, observers also raise an important point related to Sino-Russian relations in Belarus, as Moscow has sought to attract Chinese investment for infrastructure projects on its territory, and Chinese investments in Belarus are considered feasible and increase China’s attractiveness to the Belt and Road corridor that passes through Russian territory, it may become The growing Chinese influence in its neighborhood is worrying in the long run and endangering the Russian presence, especially if developments threaten China’s plans and push it to protect its economic interests through the use of military solutions, such as establishing military bases to secure them, as China provided a loan of 500 million dollars after Moscow suspended a similar loan, It also assisted Belarus in building its “Polonez” missile system to strengthen its own defense system against Moscow after the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula and after Moscow’s refusal to sell its “Iskander” missile system at a reduced price to Belarus.

As stated in the report of the American “Jamestown” Institute for Research, the above does not mean that China will replace Russia as an external superpower in Belarus, but with the escalation of tensions between Moscow and Minsk due to Vladimir Putin’s push to integrate Russia and Belarus, Beijing may be an important source of defense. On Lukashenka, especially if Brussels and Washington do not change their approach, and if China’s role grows in this way, Lukashenka may feel less pressure to succumb to Moscow on integration or the West on democratization.

Of course, the Chinese do not want to antagonize Russia, the strategic ally that blesses the steps of the Belt and Road Initiative. Rather, what matters to Beijing is to protect its interests and investments in Belarus, and in the face of the scenario of the possibility that Moscow will not be able to control events in Belarus, it is not excluded that Beijing will adopt a pragmatic approach different from what Moscow wants Therefore, it establishes relations that take into account its interests in the first degree, especially the Belt and Road Initiative, with any government that appears in Minsk, even if this comes at the expense of its current favorite ally, “Lukashenko.”

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