As Europe’s “last authoritarian state”, Belarus is often portrayed as a divisive force: in Moscow sit its supporters, in Washington and Brussels – its detractors. This dichotomy tends to gloss over the multi-faceted nature of Minsk’s foreign relations. One facet that merits more detailed analysis is the growing relationship with China.
Since official relations were established in 1992, China’s leaders have lavished considerable attention on Belarus: Hu Jintao visited the country as Vice-Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in 1998 and 2000; Premier Wen Jiabao made a historic two-day visit in November 2007; and in March 2010, CCP Vice-Chairman Xi Jinping, who is likely to succeed Hu as President of China in 2012, came with a delegation of 49 executives and Commerce Ministry officials to sign a raft of new trade and investment agreements.
Likewise, President Lukashenka has made numerous visits to Beijing over the years, most recently in 2005, 2008, and 2010. Given the moderate size of Belarus in economic and demographic terms, and the few advantages it offers in terms of resources and markets, it is a bit puzzling that Beijing’s nomenklatura would make these diplomatic overtures.
Sino-Belarus relations in many ways reflect the complex motives of China’s foreign policy in the developing world today. As Beijing leverages its position as an emerging world power, it is pursuing new forms of economic diplomacy that aim to secure resources and markets overseas. At the same time, it still resorts to a revolutionary diplomacy that emphasizes national sovereignty, anti-hegemonism, and Third World solidarity. One might argue, of course, that the economic and political motives of China’s diplomacy go hand-in-hand: political relations open doors for Chinese investors; by the same token, economic activity can help accomplish geo-strategic objectives.
How does Belarus fit into this? Is it like Cuba, a post-Soviet pariah in its own region that receives Beijing’s support for purely ideological reasons? Or is it more like Pakistan, a state with geo-strategic significance that receives support because it borders on one of China’s important rivals? The most likely answer is neither of the two. Rather, it is significant because it offers an opportunity for China to extend its more generic foreign policy strategies from other developing regions into a European context. This is manifest on both the economic and the political front.
Belarus has witnessed a dramatic increase in bilateral trade with China over the past decade. China ranked fourth among Belarus’ trade partners behind Russia, the EU, and Ukraine in 2009. Bilateral trade volume grew by 72 percent over the past year. But this growing relationship is mainly based on Belarus’ imports of Chinese manufactures; in fact, China exacerbates Belarus’ trade deficit with non-EU states. Because Belarus’ biggest comparative advantage is in transport equipment and machinery and its economy is small, the potential revenue of bilateral trade is not very enticing to Beijing.
Rather, Belarus has proven to be a useful symbolic tool in China’s economic diplomacy. First, in monetary policy, it has supported China’s fledgling attempts to promote the RMB currency in global trade. When China offered RMB 65 billion in currency to developing countries in July 2009 to facilitate the purchase of Chinese imports, Belarus was the only country in Eastern Europe to participate (the other states were Argentina, Indonesia, Malaysia, and South Korea).
Second, Belarus has helped to promote development in the more backward regions of China, which have been eager to internationalize their economies but lack comparative advantage. During his visit to Belarus in 2010, Xi Jinping expressed interest in getting Belarus’ support for development of the rustbelt in northeast China. In 2007,Belarus has participated actively in the Harbin International Economy and Commerce Forum, a type of trade fair held in Heilongjiang, a remote province in that region. Belarus’s participation received considerable attention from the local Chinese media, and the Belarusian officials interviewed at the event heaped praise on Harbin’s modern infrastructure.
Finally, Belarus might also prove to be a useful testing ground for Chinese companies looking to coordinate their efforts across a range of sectors, in particular in telecoms and infrastructure. China has established integrated Export Processing Zones (EPZs) for this purpose in Central Asia and Africa, but not in Europe. Belarus’ need for investment, combined with its pariah role in Europe, may give China a golden opportunity to try this model on a new continent. In this sense, the Xi Jinping delegation’s visit to Belarus in March 2010, when Xi and Lukashenka signed 16 agreements totaling US$3.4 billion in future investments and commercial transactions, might be a sign of things to come.
Speaking of technology transfer, it is odd to note that Belarus has hosted an annual “China Technology Day” since 1998. One might speculate that this event is imbued with some symbolic significance. A bilateral government commission for technology transfer also convenes on a regular basis.
While Belarus presents an interesting component in China’s economic diplomacy, it is also useful to Beijing for political and ideological reasons. Beginning in the mid-1990s, Belarus cast several votes in the UN consistent with Chinese objectives. In 1996 and 1997, for instance, it opposed motions against China in the UN Human Rights Committee. At the same time, Belarus has participated in China’s “Human Rights Study Committees” to lend more credence to Beijing’s attempts to create parallel norms in the international community. Moreover, the Communist Party of Belarus and the Chinese Communist Party have conducted mutual visits alongside official diplomatic exchanges.
During Premier Wen’s visit in 2007, the mutual political support on the issues of “core interest” became more explicit. China would make support for Belarus’ “independence, sovereignty, territorial integrity, and domestic stability” and “oppose any country that sought to interfere in Belarus’s internal affairs under the pretext of ‘human rights’”. In exchange, Belarus confirmed its support for the One China policy, including opposition to Taiwan’s entry into the United Nations.
During Premier Wen’s visit, China also announced that it would increase its bilateral aid and preferential loans to Belarus. In a symbolic gesture, it agreed to help construct a new hospital and a cement factory. This aid-based strategy is common to China’s bilateral relations with numerous states in Africa, South Asia, and the poorer regions of Latin America. However, it is not common in Europe.
Finally, Belarus has served as a component of Beijing’s cultural diplomacy. It is noteworthy, for instance, that Minsk has a Confucius Institute, a Chinese government-run cultural and language institute akin to Germany’s Goethe Institute. Furthermore, in February this year, the Chinese government held an exhibit of Chinese ethnic minority clothing in Minsk, and a performance troupe from Zhejiang Normal University gave three dance performances under the theme of “China’s auspicious red”. These might be signs that China is seeking to enhance its “soft power” in Belarus.
However, although Beijing is working toward closer political ties, it does not overplay the significance of the Lukashenka regime as such because it is well aware of its precarious hold on power. The Chinese government has allowed the Chinese media to publish objective, uncensored reports on the fraudulent elections in Belarus over the last decade. In December 2010, for instance, the government-run Xinhua news agency provided a detailed report on the opposition protests. Phoenix, a more independent news source based in Hong Kong, also reported extensively on the US and European opposition to the election results.
More revealing is the opinion piece published in 2006 by the Global Times, a conservative daily paper based in Beijing. The article criticized the Bush administration’s aggressive attempts to depose Lukashenka to “incite another color revolution”, as well as attempts by international NGOs to meddle in Belarus’ internal affairs. However, the article also caricatured Lukashenka’s “love for the former Soviet Union” and found Lukashenka’s attempts to institute democratic institutions to be hypocritical, since the regime still required all organizations to sign contracts with state-owned units and discouraged any form of public protest. In conclusion, the author argued that Lukashenka could only survive in office if employment remained high and the state continued to provide good public services.
For Belarus, the evolving relationship with China is a boon to state-owned industry and the Lukashenka regime. Belarus may soon benefit from better infrastructure, technology transfer, and cheaper consumer goods and industrial inputs. In a country where FDI inflows are abysmally low, Chinese capital is more than welcome. At the same time, the bilateral relationship allows Lukashenka to hedge risks in foreign policy.
Meanwhile, China maintains a very sober attitude towards Belarus. The asymmetry in bilateral relations gives Beijing leeway to use Minsk in a manner conducive to its own aims: to boost development in China’s backward regions; to garner the usual support for the One China Policy and human rights, as well as for new monetary and trade policies; and to replicate aid-infrastructure-trade packages in a European context. This explains why so many top cadres have visited this small state in the heart of Europe over the past 15 years.
While mutual support for political aims is important, Beijing does not allow socialist nostalgia to cloud its judgment of the Lukashenka regime. It is well aware that Lukashenka is a pariah in the eyes of the EU and US. It is unlikely that China will make extraordinary efforts to salvage his regime. Rather, it is safe to assume that China’s commercial and diplomatic ties with Belarus will outlast Lukashenka. The Chinese, after all, tend to think long-term.
by Iacob Koch-Weser, contributing writer. Koch-Weser is editor-in-chief of the Harvard Asia Quarterly.
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