Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko left for a five-day visit to China on Tuesday. There he wants to sign "a comprehensive package of documents on the development of bilateral relations in different spheres," according to the Belarusian President's website. Lukashenko wants to meet the Chinese government, but also “representatives of leading Chinese companies”.
Before the state visit, the CIA warned that China could export military goods to Russia and threatened severe consequences in this case. According to the think tank Institute for the Study of War (ISW), Lukashenko could try to help Russia and China with arms deliveries. According to the ISW, Beijing could seek agreements with Belarus to hide the violation of sanctions.
At first glance, the situation seems clear: a Putin vassal is on his way to Beijing to do his master a favor. What exactly Lukashenko's talks in China will be about is still unknown. Unlike the Belarusian presidential office, the Chinese side did not provide any information on the content of the planned meetings.
But Lukashenko will certainly have more in mind than just compulsory labor for Putin. For years, the Belarusian dictator has been trying to diversify his foreign policy partners. In his two and a half decades in power, he skillfully balanced between the West and Russia, a country with which Belarus has been a union state for more than 20 years - at least on paper.
Just three years ago, Lukashenko responded to pressure from Moscow to make progress with the implementation of the union state by intensifying contacts with Washington and Beijing. In February 2020, then US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Minsk with the intention of normalizing relations with Lukashenko's dictatorship. By then, most Western sanctions against the regime had already been lifted, and Lukashenko had released political prisoners.
China has never been interested in the fate of political prisoners, but rather in more or less pragmatic relations between Belarus and the West. Belarus was also interesting for China as a stepping stone to the EU, as the country is on the northern corridor of the "New Silk Road".
In December 2019, China granted Belarus a loan equivalent to $500 million -- also at a time of heightened conflict with Russia, when Lukashenko allowed demonstrations against his country's further integration with Russia. The financial aid raised immense expectations in Belarus, since there had already been considerable military cooperation between the countries.
China supplied Lukashenko with armored clones of the US military vehicle Humvee, and with Chinese help his regime developed the Polonez multiple rocket launcher. It fires Chinese-made missiles and is largely based on the Chinese A200 system.
More than two years after the bloody protests in August 2020, there are almost 1,500 political prisoners in Belarus again. The country is de facto taking part in the Russian war against Ukraine and is again subject to sanctions. Lukashenko scared off potential Western partners, so his wish list for Beijing has grown all the longer. China remains Belarus' only partner alongside Russia.
Lukashenko's expectations are only partially fulfilled, even in the best-case scenario. For China, Belarus is above all the third most important supplier of potash fertilizers, the import of which has become more cumbersome due to the sanctions. Lukashenko has been trying for years to replace Chinese technology imports with domestic production, but so far without much success - imports from China often end up being cheaper.
The volume of imports from China exceeded exports from Belarus five times in 2021. Exports of agricultural products and timber from Belarus to China have increased, but less than Minsk had hoped. The plan for a joint Belarusian-Chinese industrial park, a prestigious major project of bilateral cooperation, also seems to be faltering. Many Chinese companies withdrew during the pandemic, followed by the Europeans. The Ukraine war accelerated this development.
So Lukashenko puts on a good face to the bad game while the gap between his expectations and the reality of Belarusian-Chinese relations widens. For China, a heavily sanctioned country like Belarus is not of state interest, with the possible exception of foreign policy gestures such as recognizing Taiwan as a Chinese province. Lukashenko will probably also support the Chinese “peace plan” for Ukraine in Beijing.
In his rhetoric and in official documents, the Belarusian dictator practically puts relations with China on a par with Russian-Belarusian relations, but his trade and investment targets are simply unrealistic, write Belarus experts Andrei Yeliseyeu and Olga Aleszko-Lessels in a paper by the Friedrich-Ebert-Foundation.
The country's accession to the China-led organization SCO, announced last year, and the signing of a "strategic all-weather partnership" with China are ultimately also a message from Lukashenko to Putin. No matter what the reality is, Lukashenko wants to say to his patron in the Kremlin: You are not my only benefactor, I also have other options.