Sino-Belarusian cooperation not unique for the region
On October 2nd, the Belarusian House of Representatives ratified a Sino-Belarusian agreement on the military forces, temporarily deployed for joint exercises and training.
Belarus has been consistently reinforcing its cooperation with China, reaching the level of strategic partnership in summer 2013. Strengthening Sino-Belarusian bilateral relations allows Belarus to overcome its excessive dependence on Russia, while there is no progress in Western policy. However, China’s cooperation with Belarus is not exceptional in the region as China also reaches out to other neighbours of Belarus.
Since 2011, following a failed Belarus-EU dialogue, Belarus has put stakes on China and created unprecedented favourable conditions for Chinese investment. At the same time, Belarus has long exaggerated the level of political cooperation with China, calling it a ‘strategic partnership’. However, the ‘strategic’ level of relations was possible only after Lukashenko’s seventh visit to China and occurred later than with other Belarusian neighbours. This summer, the parties signed a declaration on the comprehensive strategic partnership, as well as other agreements, inter alia, on cooperation in aerospace and defence technology.
On the one hand, rhetoric about the exceptional nature of Sino-Belarusian relations is used by Belarus for domestic consumption. Often, an excessive focus on relations with China enables Belarus to compensate for foreign policy failures, especially concerning Belarusian-European relations. On the other hand, by developing cooperation with China, Belarus hopes to make Russia jealous and, as a result, to win certain concessions as the Eurasian Union shapes up.
However, the relationship between China and Belarus is not unique in the region. Signed in 2001, the Good Neighbourhood, Friendship and Cooperation Treaty established a strategic partnership between China and Russia. A Joint Declaration on Strategic Partnership between Ukraine and China was signed in summer 2011, and Sino-Polish – in late 2011. ‘Comprehensive strategic partnership’ relations between China and the EU were established in 2003.
Military cooperation between Belarus and China is also not unique. It helps Belarusian military to make steps towards integration in the global security system. Belarus and China have held joint exercises and training in Belarus since 2011. The draft agreement on the status of China’s military forces in Belarus was signed in December 2012.
Thus, Sino-Belarusian relations, inter alia, in the military sphere, are developing in line with regional trends. Belarus seeks to improve cooperation with China by all means. However, the Chinese leaders do not treat their relations with Belarus as something special.
Over the past year, military-political relations between Minsk and Kyiv have become complicated. Due to their high inertia and peculiarities, this downward trend would be extremely difficult to overcome.
The root cause of the crisis is the absence of a common political agenda in the Belarusian-Ukrainian relations. Minsk is looking for a market for Belarusian exports in Ukraine and offers its services as a negotiation platform for the settlement of the Russo-Ukrainian war, thereby hoping to avoid political issues in the dialogue with Kiev. Meanwhile, Ukraine is hoping for political support from Minsk in the confrontation with Moscow. In addition, Ukraine’s integration with NATO presupposes her common position with the Alliance in relation to Belarus. The NATO leadership regards the Belarusian Armed Forces as an integral part of the Russian military machine in the western strategic front (the Baltic states and Poland). In addition, the ongoing military reform in Ukraine envisages a reduction in the number of generals and the domestic political struggle makes some Ukrainian top military leaders targets in politically motivated attacks.
Hence, the criticism of Belarus coming from Ukrainian military leadership is dictated primarily by internal and external political considerations, as well as by the need to protect the interests of generals, and only then by facts.
For instance, initially, the Ukrainian military leadership made statements about 100,000 Russian servicemen allegedly taking part in the Russo-Belarusian military drill West-2017. Then the exercises were labelled quazi-open and military observers from Ukraine refused to provide their assessment, which caused a negative reaction in Minsk. Further, without citing specific facts, it was stated that Russia was building up its military presence in Belarus.
Apparently, the Belarusian and Ukrainian Defence Ministries have entangled in a confrontational spiral (on the level of rhetoric). Moreover, only a small part of the overly hidden process has been disclosed. That said, third states are very likely to take advantage of the situation (or have already done so). This is not only about Russia.
The Belarusian Defence Ministry officials are restrained in assessing their Ukrainian counterparts. However, such a restraint is not enough. Current military-political relations between Belarus and Ukraine are unlikely to stabilise without the intervention of both presidents.