Belarus-Chinа: Much Sound And Little Sense

Starting 2006, the relationship with China has been regarded as one of the key foreign policy priorities of Belarus. Officials tend to emphasize the commonness of opinions on the world order, commend the serenity of the mutual relations and hold up the Chinese model of economic, political and social expansion as an example. The media incessantly report on various types of Beijing’s financial assistance to Belarus.

However, to what extent does this bright official discourse represent the real level of Belarusian-Chinese relations, both political and economic? This research study adopts a critical approach to some aspects of the political engagement with China and ‘unprecedented’ level of economic cooperation. The political relationship with China, expansion in mutual trade since 2000 and level of Chinese investments are assessed in the regional perspective. Some of the parameters of Belarus’s collaboration with Beijing are compared with those in the neighboring states—Russia, Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania and Latvia.

The study draws the following conclusions:

■ The real level of the formal political relationship between Belarus and China is rather modest in the regional perspective. Despite repeated statements about the ‘strategic partnership’ between the two countries made by the Belarusian ruling elite, the Chinese side makes use of more humble terms to describe the level of engagement. In the meantime, China appears to have a true strategic partnership with Russia, Poland and Ukraine.

■ Official Minsk unreasonably hopes to serve as a ‘springboard’ for China to access the European market. In its foreign policy and foreign economic strategy, China does not identify any specific country as the platform for its presence in the European region. Moreover, there are no objective economic prerequisites for Belarus to act as a bridge for China, whereas both Ukraine and Poland fiercely compete for this nonexistent status.

■ Two-way trade between Belarus and China has been showing impressive results during the last decade; however, in the regional perspective, it does not look anything extraordinary. Trade between the two countries expanded 15.4 times in 2000-2011. For Poland, Ukraine and Russia, the figures are at 9.3, 11.1 and 13.5 times, respectively. China’s share in Belarus’s foreign trade was only 3.3% in 2011, whereas Poland, Ukraine and Russia reported China’s share at 4.8%, 5.6% and 10.1%, respectively. Most of the Belarusian exports to China are raw materials and low added-value products of the extractive and chemical industries.

■ Belarus overrates the potential of economic benefits from its compliance with China in political issues. The amount of trade and investment cooperation with China is determined primarily by the economic attractiveness of projects and general economic and investment environment in the country. Whereas China’s direct investments in the Belarusian economy are comparatively modest, large-scale project financing schemes impose certain limitations on Belarusian enterprises and pose risks as far as external borrowings are concerned.

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