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Interview: Why Did Xi Invite Lukashenka To China?

Belarusian autocrat Alyaksandr Lukashenka walks with Chinese leader Xi Jinping in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 1.
Belarusian autocrat Alyaksandr Lukashenka walks with Chinese leader Xi Jinping in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 1.

Many observers were caught off guard when Belarusian autocrat Alyaksandr Lukashenka was invited to China for a three-day state visit, but the motives for the visit are coming into focus.

While Belarus courting more Chinese investment was a clear reason for the visit, the war in Ukraine is a shared concern for both Lukashenka and Chinese leader Xi Jinping.

During his trip, Lukashenka endorsed China’s 12-point proposal to broker a cease-fire between Kyiv and Moscow and signed a range of bilateral agreements on trade and technology that total $3.5 billion, according to Belarusian authorities.

Lukashenka and Xi sign new agreements under the guise of their “all-weather and comprehensive” strategic partnership.
Lukashenka and Xi sign new agreements under the guise of their “all-weather and comprehensive” strategic partnership.

But the timing of the visit amid U.S. allegations that Beijing is considering providing military aid to Russia has fueled speculation the trip was an opportunity to chart a diplomatic path forward for the yearlong war in Ukraine.

RFE/RL spoke with Nigel Gould-Davies, former British ambassador to Belarus and a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, to find out more.

RFE/RL: We saw some vague mentions of economic cooperation, that Lukashenka endorsed the Chinese position paper on the Ukraine war, and that Minsk is apparently leaving with a combined $3.5 billion in future Chinese investment. What's your takeaway on the visit, and against what backdrop do you think it should be seen?

Nigel Gould-Davies: I think that the broader context is key and there are some dots that need to be joined, however speculative, to get to the essence of this visit.

On the surface, this was mostly about economics, trade, investment, car manufacturing, and further developing some of the joint initiatives like Great Stone Park, the large Chinese-funded industrial area outside of Minsk. But you don't really need a three-day visit by a head of state to accomplish all of that.

With few exceptions, Lukashenka rarely travels abroad and -- particularly with everything going on in Belarus's neighborhood -- he needs a good reason to travel all the way to China and spend that amount of time outside the country. So, it makes it hard to avoid this suspicion that this visit was really about the war in Ukraine.

This also comes just after China unveiled its so-called peace plan, which in my view just applies a set of principles or things that it would like to happen rather than an actual outline of how you get from here to there. But it's a significant Chinese diplomatic intervention, and I think it amplifies China’s anxiety about the war and its desire for it to end sooner than later.

Lukashenka also has compelling reasons for wanting the war to end as well. In particular, he wants to resist growing Russian pressure for Belarusian forces to become co-combatants and shift from only allowing Belarus to be used to base Russian forces and launch Russian attacks.

So, this trip is interesting because we see the two countries closest to Russia -- China and Belarus -- both meeting and saying publicly that they want the war to end as quickly as possible.

RFE/RL: The timing of the visit seems to have caught many off-guard and certainly got lots of attention given that it came amid U.S. allegations that China is considering sending weapons to Russia. I’m curious for your thoughts on the timing and also on some of the speculation that perhaps this trip was about exploring options for Belarus to help China skirt sanctions and deliver military aid to Russia.
Gould-Davies: We can't really go beyond what the available evidence can reasonably suggest.

Belarus is feeling the pressure of Western sanctions and is in need of aid, trade, and investment from China. But sending Russia aid through Belarus would push things in a very different direction and risk escalating the war by equipping Russia with fresh supplies. Doing something like this certainly wouldn't be conducive to ending the war, and I guess this ultimately comes down to what Chinese priorities are.

We've seen these American concerns that China might be preparing to not only help Russia's economy but to supply its military with things like ammunition and drones. So far there's no evidence that I'm aware of that this has taken place and, if it did, it would be a very serious step.

There isn't much at the moment to suggest that China might somehow supply weapons to Belarus for Russian use. That doesn't make much sense to me. If Russia and China were to do that, then why not just give them to Russia directly? There's no particular reason in my mind why Belarus would need to be involved, and they would need to go through Russia anyways.

Another thought is that it's widely expected that Xi Jinping will make a state visit to Moscow later this year and this has been telegraphed by Putin himself recently. So, is Lukashenka's visit some form of preparation for that?

It's hard to say, of course, but Lukashenka is a frequent visitor to Moscow, and he made some eccentric comments [on February 16] that Biden would soon be visiting the region and that he'd be happy to host a meeting between him and Putin in Minsk to try and end the war. I don't think that Putin was especially happy about those comments.

RFE/RL: You mentioned before this idea that Russia’s closest partners -- China and Belarus -- are maybe trying to get a sense of a possible path out of the war. But I think that raises some questions about Lukashenka and how much room he has to maneuver these days. Minsk has always been dependent on Moscow, but after Putin coming to his aid after the 2020 protests, he’s more beholden than ever. So how much space does Lukashenka actually have to engage with Xi as an independent leader right now?

Gould-Davies: Lukashenka's position in respect to Moscow has been very weak since late 2020 after he essentially burned all his bridges with the West as a consequence of the brutal crackdown on peaceful demands for change in the country. He also continued burning them in various ways after that with things like diverting the Ryanair flight and flying in migrants to create pressure on the Polish border.

So, his position is certainly much weaker than before, but he's still not a puppet. He still has some room to maneuver, and there are certain things he's still able to resist from Russia. Granted, that room might be more limited than in the past.

What's harder to tell is how much of this trip to Beijing was carried out independently of Moscow or whether it's serving some purpose for Moscow that they had set up. If you're Beijing, you're setting three days aside for a state visit with the head of Belarus amid a long list of priorities at home and abroad, so you wouldn’t do that if it wasn't important to some wider agenda. Although what exactly that [might be] is genuinely difficult to establish at this point.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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    Reid Standish

    Reid Standish is an RFE/RL correspondent in Prague and author of the China In Eurasia briefing. He focuses on Chinese foreign policy in Eastern Europe and Central Asia and has reported extensively about China's Belt and Road Initiative and Beijing’s internment camps in Xinjiang. Prior to joining RFE/RL, Reid was an editor at Foreign Policy magazine and its Moscow correspondent. He has also written for The Atlantic and The Washington Post.

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