China on Tuesday welcomes President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus, a close ally of the Kremlin, less than a week after it sought to portray itself as a neutral arbiter in Russia’s war in Ukraine.
The three-day state visit until March 2, happening at the invitation of President Xi Jinping, would further advance the “all-weather” partnership between the two countries, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said Monday in Beijing.
Lukashenko, whose nearly three-decade presidency has been the subject of intense dispute since 2020, allowed his country to serve as a staging ground for the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine one year ago.
Belarus still hosts Russian troops and hardware, although Minsk hasn’t committed its forces to the ongoing conflict.
Xi himself has sought to walk a fine line regarding Ukraine, and, like Lukashenko, the Chinese leader is sympathetic to President Vladimir Putin’s grievances against the West. China has offered Russia significant political and economic cover in the last 12 months. Officials in Washington and Brussels believe this support could soon expand to include the transfer of lethal weapons—although Beijing denies this.
China Welcomes Putin Ally Lukashenko in Beijing
By inviting his Belarusian counterpart to Beijing at a time when he’s also trying to restart dialogue with the West, China’s president risks deepening his already awkward balancing act on the war in Ukraine.
At the same time, however, Xi is signaling that his own priorities are markedly different from those of the U.S. and Europe.
“Lukashenko is likely going to Beijing to reinforce an image of independence and strength at home—given the widespread perception that he is essentially a Putin client. Lukahsenko may also be hoping for improved economic ties with China, given the swath of sanctions the West has imposed on Belarus,” said Charles Dunst, deputy director of research at The Asia Group consulting firm in Washington, and author of Defeating the Dictators: How Democracy Can Prevail in the Age of the Strongman.
“Beijing appreciates foreign flattery, and Lukashenko’s visit is no exception. China may also be interested in greater economic cooperation with Belarus, which Beijing considers a key transit link for the Belt and Road Initiative, given the country’s proximity to both Russia and the European Union,” Dunst told Newsweek, referring to the centerpiece of Xi’s economics-led foreign policy, also known as the BRI.
Beijing doubtless is aware of the optics in the West, but there’s much more to its relationship with Minsk than Lukashenko’s level of involvement in Ukraine. And for Belarus’s sanctions-hit economy, China could be a lifeline.
“For Belarus, the visit is economically very important. It doesn’t have many trade partners except for Russia right now, and Lukashenko wants alternatives,” said Oleg Ignatov, a senior analyst at the Crisis Group think tank in Brussels. “Lukashenka himself is critically dependent on Putin. This situation makes him look less dependent.”
Lukashenko’s display of agility could also arouse suspicion in Moscow, Ignatov told Newsweek. “He’s very interested in having alternative trade partners but also political partners because he’s isolated. This shows he can find an escape from sanctions and find ways to save the Belarusian economy, putting him in a stronger position for dialogue with Russia.”
“Today, not a single issue in the world can be resolved without China,” the Belarusian president told Chinese state news service Xinhua in an interview published on Monday. “Today, no one can contain China or stop its development.”
The state visit, which follows Lukashenko’s one-on-one talks with Xi on the margins of last September’s Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, coincides with China’s post-pandemic reopening. The trip was announced one day after Beijing unveiled its 12-point proposal “on the political settlement of the Ukraine crisis.”
The release of the new position paper was Beijing’s way of demonstrating it had contributed constructively to ending the war, now in its 13th month. Ultimately, however, its credibility and influence both remain limited by its reluctance to clearly link Moscow’s actions in the past year with violations of core United Nations principles.
China’s lengthy statement called attention to the “sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of all countries” but didn’t directly reference Ukraine. It called for a cease-fire without demanding the withdrawal of the invading party, and it opposed nuclear saber-rattling while failing to mention by whom.
Meanwhile, China repeated a year of shared positions with Russia, against “expanding military blocs” that threaten “legitimate security interests,” and against all “unilateral sanctions” that aren’t approved by the U.N. Security Council, on which Moscow’s veto-wielding representatives sit.
The result was an at once ambitious and improbable proposal that, perhaps by design, appeared to please no one.
“What they are saying looks like respect for territorial integrity. It doesn’t mention the country, but it’s our territorial integrity that has been breached,” President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine told a press conference on February 24, on the one-year anniversary of the invasion.
“There are some things that make sense to me. There are things that I disagree with, that I think the entire world disagrees with. But nonetheless, this is at least something,” Zelensky said.
Ukraine’s president said he planned to discuss the Chinese proposal with Xi, in what appeared to be another attempt at outreach. Beijing hasn’t responded to Kyiv’s requests for high-level talks in the past year and maintains only embassy-level contacts.
Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov offered platitudes on Monday in response to China’s plan. “Any effort that helps to bring this conflict to a peaceful path deserves attention,” he said.
“At the moment, we do not see the conditions for this matter to take a peaceful path,” Peskov said. “The special military operation continues.”
In a February 24 call between China’s Foreign Minister Qin Gang and his Belarus opposite number Sergei Aleinik, the Chinese diplomat offered his support against “external interference in Belarus’s internal affairs and illegal unilateral sanctions against the country.”
“Aleinik expressed that Belarus fully agrees with and supports the Chinese document, and China’s relevant proposals are of great significance to resolving the crisis,” said a readout published by Beijing.
“If you claim to be a global player, you don’t offer an unrealistic plan. You don’t bet on an aggressor who broke international law and will lose the war. This is short-sighted,” Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Zelensky, said in a tweet after Lukashenko’s visit to Beijing was announced. “China, the ‘window of opportunity’ is not endless.”
Separately, Xi is expected to visit Putin in Moscow this spring.
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