Strategic Advances and Economic Hopes of Belarus-China Relations

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 14 Issue: 97

Chinese and Belarusian troops take part in Union Shield 2017 counter-terrorism exercise (Source:

Belarus hosted a joint counter-terrorism exercise with China called United Shield 2017, on July 11–18 (Belta, July 18). It took place at a training field bear Barysau and brought together a rapid response unit of the Interior Troops of the Belarusian Ministry of Internal Affairs and the Hunting Falcon special operations unit of the Chinese People’s Armed Police Force. According to the scenario of the exercise, terrorists captured a town and took hostages, and the special forces, mixed in groups of two and three, had to liberate them. The exercises were relatively widely covered by the Belarusian state media. According to state-news reports, plans for future exercises are already underway (, July 18).

This is not the first time Belarus and China jointly held anti-terrorism drills. For example, two years ago in June, Dashing Eagle 2015 took place on the premises of the 38th independent mobile brigade, in Brest region (Belta, June 24, 2015). Before that, Belarusian special forces units participated in training in China under the aegis of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Indeed, the two countries have taken part in various military and anti-terrorism exercises together every year since 2011 (, July 13).

The growing intensity of cooperation between their militaries and special forces reflects the overall state of Belarus-China relations: both sides assess them as reaching the highest political level. Besides joint drills and anti-terrorism activities, Beijing is particularly interested in cooperation in the military-industrial area, where Minsk has the most to offer.

In September 2016, during President Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s visit to China, a cooperation agreement (road map) between the State Military and Industrial Committee of Belarus and the Chinese Corporation of Aerospace Science and Technology (CASC) was signed (Belta, September 29, 2016). The agreement is supposed to give a stronger boost to the already existing collaboration, which resulted, for example, in the production of the Palanez multiple-launch rocket system (MLRS) in 2015 (, June 30, 2015). The news about the Palanez quickly resonated across the media and policy circles, not only because of the advanced nature of cooperation between Minsk and Beijing, but also because Belarus once again demonstrated that it can develop serious projects in the military-industrial realm with countries other than just Russia (the latter has been increasingly reluctant in recent years to provide Belarus with advanced weapons). The capabilities of the new MLRS, which many see as a significantly more advanced substitute for the Russian-produced Smerch MLRS, also look impressive (, April 3, 2016). The Palanez can reportedly hit eight targets simultaneously, at a distance of more than 200 kilometers. President Lukashenka called it “a present” for the whole country (, June 22, 2016). Moreover, at the recently held Milex-2017 exhibition of defense equipment, Belarus presented its own tactical ballistic missile to be used by the Palanez. Shooting tests have to still be carried out; but apparently the new missile will make it possible to deliver a 560-kilogram payload as far as 300 km (Belarus Digest, May 30). Some observers assume that the new Belarusian MLRS projectile might also have resulted from collaboration with China.

Military-to-military cooperation is emerging as the most successful and promising area of Belarusian-Chinese relations. At the same time, the Belarusian authorities hold high expectations for economic ties at large, especially within the context of the Belt and Road Initiative and various grand logistical and infrastructure projects it foresees. The overall calculation by Minsk can be summarized by the formula “China has the funding, Belarus has access”—meaning the latter country’s membership in the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) and geographic proximity to the European Union (see EDM, September 14, 2015). However, these expectations have yet to materialize. First of all, Russia and Kazakhstan are, by default, more logical points of entry to the EEU market for Chinese goods. Furthermore, Moscow makes it clear that it will complicate Chinese investments in Belarus’s economy if the interests of Russian companies are at stake (, January 5, 2012). Lingering uncertainties regarding exemptions from the free movement of goods, services, capital and human resources regime within the EEU do not improve the attractiveness of investing in Belarus either.

Finally, Minsk finds it difficult to compete with other Central and Eastern European countries for the status of the gateway to the EU. Most of those countries are already EU members or, at least, have advanced trading regimes with the bloc. Belarus, in turn, does not even have a Partnership and Cooperation Agreement in place. One was signed back in 1995 but was never ratified on the EU side (, August 10, 2015). This is another reason for Minsk to raise the issue of a bilateral agreement with the EU and join various regional fora, for example the “16+1 format,” to find a potentially more lucrative place in China’s economic projects (Minsk Dialogue, March 17). The joint Belarusian-Chinese “Great Stone” industrial park, which is being built on the outskirts of Minsk, can make a significant contribution as well, but its success will also depend on the conditions Belarus can offer to its prospective residents, as well as the legal and institutional frameworks it will have with the EU and EEU.

At the moment, all potential notwithstanding, economic relations with China remain highly imbalanced and deficit-generating for Belarus. It is telling that, in August 2015, Lukashenka signed a directive on the development of bilateral relations with China (, August 31, 2015). Among other things, the document foresaw the introduction of electronic quality certificates and enlarging the number of specialists involved in relations with China with a view to boosting Belarus’s gains. The issue was recently addressed at a big meeting on the foreign policy priorities of Belarus (, July 11).

Overall, relations with China can be seen as another example of the logic of strategic hedging in Belarus’s foreign policy (see EDM, June 29). In a nutshell, it aims to minimize security risks, maximize economic opportunities, and diversify its strategic options. China’s geo-economic might is not the only factor essential for this strategy. Importantly, Beijing is not part of the binary geopolitical tensions in Europe’s East (between Russia and the West), which pose a fundamental challenge to Belarus’s sovereignty and diplomatic maneuverability. Moreover, China can be instrumental in advancing Minsk’s relations with third countries. This, as some analysts observe, has been the case with Pakistan (Belarus Digest, September 14, 2015).