The Washington Post
China, claiming neutrality on Ukraine, hosts a Putin ally
Even as China pushes to distance itself from the perception that it supports Russian hostilities in Ukraine — or at least benefits from economic ties with Russia amid strict Western sanctions — one of Moscow’s closest allies, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, was due to arrive in Beijing on Tuesday for a state visit.
Lukashenko, an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, was set to meet Chinese leader Xi Jinping during the visit, and Xi is due to visit Putin in Moscow in the coming months.
While the Belarusian leader is in Beijing, the two sides are expected to sign agreements deepening cooperation on trade, education and technology.
The three-day meeting kicked off amid warnings in Washington that China is contemplating direct military aid to Russia, which Beijing vehemently denied Monday, accusing the United States of “blatant bullying and double standards.”
It also comes just days after China released a 12-point proposal for ending hostilities in Ukraine, part of a lukewarm diplomatic effort by Beijing to position itself as a mediator.
The proposal, issued Friday, called for a cease-fire and largely restated points previously made by Xi and other Chinese officials. Though the document made no criticism of Russia’s actions, its release provided an opportunity for both Kyiv and Moscow to express interest in continuing dialogue with China.
But hosting one of Putin’s closest allies days later hardly contradicts the narrative that Beijing endorses Moscow’s actions — possibly, some U.S. and European officials worry, to the extent of providing military aid despite their repeated warnings.
“There’s been a clear push by Beijing, Moscow, Minsk and Tehran to demonstrate a narrative that says ‘We have other options, and we’ll put them on proud display — you can sanction us all you want, and it doesn’t matter,’” said Raffaello Pantucci, a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute for Defense and Security Studies in London.
Pantucci pointed to Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi’s visit to Beijing in mid-february and the trip to Moscow last week by China’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, as evidence of this effort to demonstrate resilience in the face of sanctions.
China has positioned itself as a potential broker of peace between Russia and Ukraine, in contrast with the United States, which Beijing has framed as an agent of global instability because of its support for Ukraine.
“Certainly the [Lukashenko] visit itself doesn’t help China’s intention of playing a more active role in mediating between Russia and Ukraine,” said Li Mingjiang, an associate professor of international relations at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.
While Lukashenko’s visit is likely to generate doubts about China’s neutrality, Li said, he was skeptical that the Belarusian leader could encourage Xi to take a more overtly pro-russian approach. “It’s difficult to imagine that Lukashenko could convince China to provide strong support to Russia, including military assistance,” Li said.
In an interview with Chinese state news agency Xinhua the day before the meeting, Lukashenko praised China’s investments in Belarus and talked up Beijing’s position on the world stage.
“Any international issue cannot be solved without China, and China has become a world power with independent global policies,” Lukashenko reportedly told Xinhua. “Whoever wants to contain and prevent the development of today’s China will not be able to succeed.”
Lukashenko has been Belarus’s only leader since its independence in 1990 and was so strongly in favor of the Russian invasion of Ukraine that he allowed Belarus to be used as a staging ground. In 2020, he crushed the protests that followed his disputed reelection. Belarus shares its two largest borders with Ukraine and Russia, and its economy depends on close ties with Moscow.
“Lukashenko just met with Putin, and he can no doubt act as a messenger between China and Russia,” said Wan Qingsong, an associate professor at the Center for Russian Studies at East China Normal University in Shanghai.
“But like China, Belarus is also trying to show the world that it doesn’t want to be tied up with Russia and is ready to play a bigger role as a mediator,” Wan said.
The meeting between Xi and Lukashenko is likely to focus on their bilateral relationship, Li said, which the two sides agreed to intensify in September at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization Summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, building on several years of annual visits by Lukashenko to China before the pandemic.
The visit also gives China the opportunity to assure Belarus that ties between the two are solid, should Minsk have any doubts about its main economic relationship. “In the past, Lukashenko has looked to Beijing as an alternative option because they wanted to slip out of Moscow’s embrace,” Pantucci said.
Online in China, nationalist commentators have described the Russian war against Ukraine as an opportunity for the country to occupy the role of a global superpower.
“It is possible that the RussiaUkraine conflict will become a testing ground for China to exert its influence as a major power and resolve international conflicts,” wrote Ming Jinwei, a former senior editor at Xinhua, in his popular Wechat blog. Exercising this influence is an “important lesson for China on the road to its rise as a great power,” Ming wrote.
China is maximizing its strategic interest in its approach to Russia, Wan said. According to government data, China’s trade with Russia topped a record $190 billion in 2022, increasing for six months straight in the latter part of the year — especially in products like cars, which China seeks self-sufficiency in producing.
Closer ties to Belarus could also boost China’s position as a powerful country in the eyes of those that have been historically in Russia’s sphere of influence. “China always looks at these peripheral countries and understands their strategic importance,” said Theresa Fallon, director of the Center for Russia Europe Asia Studies in Brussels.
“China is wise enough to understand their value,” Fallon said. “And Lukashenko is wily enough to try to balance these two powers.”
China has pursued an “independent foreign policy” in its stance on the war, Wan said. “The bottom line is, China is pursuing any action according to its own self-interest,” he added. “But what China can’t do is provide military aid for only one side and get itself involved.”
Russia’s ambassador to China, Igor Morgulov, indicated the two countries’ close ties on the eve of Lukashenko’s visit to Beijing and said China and Russia’s relations had become more than a military and political alliance “in many ways,” during an interview with a Chinese state-affiliated newspaper, the Global Times.
Moscow appreciated China’s “indomitable spirit” in strengthening cooperation with Russia, Morgulov said.
China could not be “dragged into the water” by any individual party, Ming wrote Saturday, but neither could it “sit back and watch the United States and the West succeed in strangling Russia.”