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The China factor in Russia’s response to the Belarus crisis

Xi Jinping was the first leader to congratulate Lukashenka on his election result. China will keep a close eye on the developments in Belarus, including Russia’s reaction.

August 21, 2020 - Anthony Rinna - Articles and Commentary

Embassy of the People's Republic of China in Minsk, Belarus. Photo: Homoatrox (cc) wikimedia.org

The Russian Federation is no stranger to political crises in its strategic sphere. In light of the current situation in Belarus following contested presidential elections, Moscow faces a unique challenge. Given the Kremlin’s recent track record of direct involvement in political developments in its periphery and beyond, one question brewing among analysts is whether or not Russia will involve itself directly – perhaps even militarily – in support of Alyaksandr Lukashenka. 

Despite the Kremlin’s clear willingness to intervene in the internal affairs of other countries deemed to be of strategic worth, the situation in Belarus comprises a very different problem for Russia compared to others such as Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. 

Of course, one of the most obvious differences is the fact that, unlike in the aforementioned states, there is not one specific region in Belarus in which the Kremlin has interests in becoming politically involved. Furthermore, unlike other sovereign states in its neighbourhood, Minsk is intimately tied to Russia through a variety of formats. This includes the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) and the (admittedly weak) Union State project.

Yet a third element is at play that could potentially influence how Moscow responds to the crisis in Belarus. Even as Minsk remains within the country’s sphere of strategic influence, the Kremlin will likely find itself factoring in how China may respond to any significant intervention in the country.

Relations between Belarus and China have grown steadily over the past several years, especially in terms of trade. Lukashenka has paid regular state visits to Beijing over the past decade, shoring up ties with the Chinese leadership. Chinese premier Xi Jinping, in fact, was the first world leader to congratulate his Belarusian counterpart on the results of this month’s elections, stressing that the two countries would build on their traditional partnership. Economic relations between Belarus and China have grown significantly over the past several years, particularly in terms of Belarusian imports of Chinese goods

Certainly, there are significant limits to the political value that closer economic ties with China provide Belarus. According to Andrei Suzdaltsev of Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, strengthening relations with China is partly a means of encouraging Russia to increase its economic investment. Subsequently, Minsk’s strategy appears to be little more than attempted blackmail. Nevertheless, this strategy is not particularly well-suited to the realities of Belarus’s external trade relationships. 

As Marek Meniszak of the Centre for Eastern Studies recently noted, Belarus may wish to shore up ties with Beijing so that it acts as a counterweight to Moscow. Despite this, the sheer scale of Moscow’s economic involvement in the country makes any prospects of China becoming a serious alternative to Russian influence rather remote. 

However, there is reason to believe that Beijing would be averse to any large-scale Russian intervention in Belarus, particularly if it was of a military nature. Officially, China’s response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the outbreak of conflict in Donbas was muted. Although in reality Beijing appears to have been troubled by the Kremlin’s military intervention. The outbreak of violence in Ukraine not only placed challenges on various Sino-Ukrainian economic plans but also one of China’s most important foreign policy ‘cornerstones’ – the inviolability of state sovereignty.

As a region, Eastern Europe’s importance for China lies primarily in its role as a geographic nexus, connecting Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) participants with the European Union’s large economic market. Due to this, one of the primary factors behind Beijing’s pursuit of closer economic relations with Minsk is the country’s prime geographic position next to the EU. Particularly in light of deepening economic cooperation between the BRI and Eurasian Economic Union, Belarus provides a valuable entry point into Europe for Chinese goods travelling across Eurasia. Belarus’s membership in the EAEU – combined with its geographic proximity to Poland – makes Minsk a valuable strategic partner for China in a broad geo-economic sense. 

The Ukraine crisis’s negative implications for deeper economic integration between Russia and other post-Soviet countries means that Moscow will have to weigh up both the economic and political costs of intervention in Belarus. Given that instability in Ukraine has frustrated China’s economic and strategic interests in the region, Beijing will likely be averse to increased unrest or geopolitical uncertainty in Belarus. Russia therefore may risk economic cooperation with Beijing should it intervene, as the Xi administration would find itself with even fewer options at its disposal regarding the BRI’s connections with Europe.

It is difficult, however, to believe that China’s interests in Belarus are so strong as to provoke attempts to restrict any potential Russian intervention in the country. Nevertheless, policymakers in both Moscow and Minsk will likely consider the extent to which a pro-government Russian intervention would affect Chinese interests. 

Given that Beijing has been careful not to challenge Russia’s perceived hegemony in its sphere of influence, China likely believes that its ability to influence Kremlin activity in Belarus is rather limited. Yet Belarusian attempts to play a “China card”, however unfeasible, may not be as muted. Depending on how Lukashenka understands the potential benefits of Russian involvement, Minsk may attempt to leverage its ties with China to an even greater degree. This may help to mitigate what Belarusian policymakers could perceive to be heavy-handedness by the Kremlin.

Whatever happens in Belarus, it will not only attract interest from stakeholders in Europe – China is sure to be watching cautiously as well.

Anthony Rinna is a senior editor at the Sino-NK research group. He currently resides in South Korea.

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