Belarus, a country contaminated by the disastrous 1986 Chernobyl nuclear power plant accident, continues to be systematically poisoned by an oppressive government led by strongman Alexander Lukashenka. Visiting Vilnius, Lithuania in April to attend a NATO foreign ministers conference, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice noted Washington’s growing frustration with Lukashenka’s anti-democracy stance by saying, “Belarus is really the last dictatorship in the center of Europe, and its time for a change.”
But with concern mounting in the West regarding the Lukashenka government, far too little attention has been given to another area of immediate concern, namely, Belarus’ growing bilateral ties with China. Public statements coming out of Minsk make it clear that the Lukashenka government has identified China, along with steady ally Russia, as a key player in its foreign policy strategy moving forward.
Like Russia, China could become the perfect collaborator for Belarus, offering the country an array of attractive economic and military incentives to sustain what has become Europe’s harshest regime. But what does Belarus offer China? Moreover, why would China seek an economic and military alliance with a European country of minimal size and influence?
A History of Bilateral Cooperation
In an interview with Chinese daily Xinhua in May, Belarus Foreign Minister Sergei Martynov noted, “Promoting relations with China is a diplomatic priority.” Since first establishing relations in 1992, both countries have gone to great lengths to increase bilateral cooperation and have demonstrated an increasing willingness to support each other in various international forums concerning issues of mutual interest and importance.
In April 2001, President Alexander Lukashenka openly supported China in the plane collision incident involving the U.S., extending his personal condolences to the families of the deceased Chinese pilot saying, “We stand on China’s side, as China made no mistake in the incident. A flourishing and rapidly developing great nation is standing up to the world. That’s China.”
In September 2003, a delegation from China that included General Chan Shutian, deputy head of the army’s political department, visited Belarus to exchange expertise in the “sphere of military discipline” which allegedly included counter-terrorist cooperation.
Recent contact between the two countries has become intense, focused primarily on the improvement of military and intelligence synergies.
In April, Belarus and China signed a joint “Declaration for the 21st Century” document agreeing to cooperate in the fields of trade, economy, science, technology, military affairs and culture. In May, Wu Guansheng, a member of the Communist Party of China (CPC), met with Tozik Anatoly Afanasievich, president of the State Control Commission of Belarus, to discuss the exchange of ideas concerning the “supervision of government.”
Also in May, Chinese Defense Minister Cao Gangchuan met with Belarus Defense Minister Leonid Semeonovich Maltsev. During their meeting, Gangchuan stated that his country’s armed forces were ready for increased cooperation with the Belarus army. Masltsev concurred, noting that Belarus was also looking to deepen the current military relationship.
Visiting Beijing in early June, Maltsev announced both countries had signed documents agreeing to allow Chinese military personnel to train in Minsk, while joint projects on munitions and military hardware were also signed.
Over the past decade, China has taken deliberate steps to advance relations with countries possessing both the natural resources to propel its economy and the global influence to support its ascension in the international community. For example, energy contracts with Iran, Sudan and Venezuela; mineral and oil sands extraction contracts with U.S. neighbor Canada; intelligence and military cooperation with Cuba; seaport agreements with Panama and mining contracts with South Africa have all furthered China’s regional and global strategic goals.
Each of these countries has provided China with a tangible, long-term strategic asset. However, this is not the case with Belarus which makes China’s pursuit of the small country unusual.
Belarus is not an economic, energy or military giant. With a service-based economy generating revenues that reached a paltry $3.3 billion in 2004, the country relies heavily on imports from neighboring countries such as Russia, Germany, Poland and the Ukraine. President Lukashenka’s “Market Socialism” which was first launched in 1995 has had mixed results. High inflation, meager foreign investment and a significant trade deficit of $600 million have all combined to hinder the country’s economic growth. Even the country’s defense budget, at $176 million or 1.4% of GDP in 2002, is miniscule when compared to other countries in the region.
Belarus’ attempts at privatization and other market reforms have been painstakingly slow and extremely burdensome for businesses, with well over 80 percent of all industry still under state control. As in the Cold War, Belarus continues to depend on Russian subsidies for its survival. Making China’s pursuit even more intriguing is the fact that Belarus is a net importer of oil – most of which comes from energy-rich Russia.
What Belarus Does Offer China
Belarus does possess one important asset that China desperately seeks - a location in the heart of Europe. With a boarder that includes Russia on the east, Ukraine in the south, Poland in the west, Lithuania in the northwest, and Latvia in the north, Belarus offers China the perfect European incubator for government sponsored activities that include spying, espionage and intelligence gathering.
In essence, Belarus could become a “virtual beehive” of Chinese sponsored covert activity. Such activities are already hallmarks of Chinese foreign policy in countries such as Australia, Canada, Germany and the U.S. With Belarus as a strong European ally in an undeclared war against U.S. global influence, covert activities could take hold across continental Europe, eventually giving China access to confidential information and technology necessary to modernize many of its more clandestine domestic industries.
If permitted to take root, this would immediately compromise the already fragile U.S. backed arms embargo against China, placing Europe’s fledgling democracies and U.S. national security in almost certain jeopardy.
For its part, Russia enjoys certain economic, geopolitical and security benefits from its relationship with Belarus. In the past, the country has used Belarusian territory to deploy early-warning missile stations and has enjoyed the use of bases in Belarus. By effectively giving Russia a defense against possible future NATO enlargement, the geostrategic importance of a cooperative and obedient Belarus is enormous. In effect, Belarus neutralizes Western democratic influences on Russia’s western boarders.
But is Russia willing to share Belarus with China, seeing U.S. global hegemony as a greater threat than Chinese economic and ideological expansionism?
The answer to this question is simple - Moscow will not permit China to compromise its long relationship with Belarus. Russia has a natural suspicion of China and its intentions in the West. Any explicit affability between Belarus and China would only support Moscow’s misgivings.
United States Concerns
Speaking at a Singapore conference organized by the London-based International Institute of Strategic Studies last month, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld openly questioned China’s continued military buildup, “Since no nation threatens China, one must wonder: Why this growing investment? Why these continuing arms purchases?”
Perhaps it is time to pose the same question to China concerning its relations with Belarus. Why the growing investment in military relations? Why the interest in holding joint military training exercises? To get an honest answer regarding these questions, Washington must be willing to ask tough questions and be prepared to receive uncomfortable answers. In the past, President Bush has called China an “espionage threat” and a “competitor, not a strategic partner.” China’s global covert actions and bilateral military arrangements throughout the world prove the President’s comments are indeed true.
China is fully committed to the development of strategic assets and governmental relations with countries located at key points throughout the world in order to accumulate power and influence. With its power and influence growing in places like Panama, Cuba, Sudan, Venezuela and Canada, China is positioning itself against the U.S. Belarus is just another strategic piece in the puzzle.
If the Belarus-China bilateral relationship is permitted to flourish and mature, it could seriously threaten U.S. sponsored efforts at global democratization. Even worse, it could mark the implementation of a larger plan by Beijing to destabilize and fracture the European community.
In short, Belarus is not a typical Chinese ally. For that reason, Western analysts should closely monitor this developing relationship.