China and Belarus: The Grand Plan: Dmitry Shlapentokh Discusses the Expansion of Chinese Influence in Europe

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Recently, China pondered buying the Belarus state-owned company Belaruskali, a major world producer of potash, the ingredient essential for the production of fertiliser. Other projects are also in making and Belarusian Vice-Premier Anatoly Tozik said '[We] hope to cooperate with China on this swap deal, which will support and coordinate bilateral trade and investment.' (1) There are also military manoeuvres. Indeed, 83 members of a Chinese special task force arrived at Baranovachi in Belarus on 5 July 2011 and flew back to Urumgi a few days later. But why should one care about these events? Supposedly the global community should worry about many other things, from terrorist to economic problems. Still, these events could be seen, at least retrospectively, as quite important, leading to the beginning of China's expansion in Europe.

In order to understand the context of events, one should briefly look at Belarus's recent history and its relationship with Russia. After the end of the Soviet Union and the emergence of Belarus as an independent state, Alexander Lukashenko, who soon became the country's president, engaged in a flirtation with Russia. Finally, Belarus joined Russia as a 'union state'. By the end of Boris Yeltsin's tenure, Lukashenko apparently believed that this arrangement would help him to replace the unpopular Yeltsin. At the same time, Yeltsin's move toward Lukashenko was due to Yeltsin's desire to show a considerable segment of the electorate that he was not just the man who destroyed the Soviet Union but also a leader who wanted to resurrect at least part of the state.

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Slim chances

With Putin's advent, the chances of Lukashenko becoming the president of a unified state became rather slim; and with nostalgia for the Soviet Union declining Putin lost any need to pretend that he would reassemble the Soviet Union, regardless of his pronouncement that the end of the Soviet Union was the greatest tragedy in the 20th century. Now, Moscow had no drive to support Minsk. By 2006 Moscow had abruptly increased the price of gas delivered to Belarus; and from then on the relationship between Minsk and Moscowwent from bad to worse, despite occasional but not lasting thaws. Lukashenko turned to the West. Still, he was seen as the 'last dictator' of Europe; and, after some flirtations, the West and Lukashenko parted. At that point, Lukashenko turned to China.

Lukashenko has had a long loving relationship with Beijing. He had visited China two times before becoming Belarusian leader and engaged in close connections with China after he became leader. China reciprocated. A Chinese delegation visited Minsk, bringing loans, investments and grants. At the beginning of 2010, for example, Chinese Vice-President Xi Jinping visited Minsk and pledged $10 billion in Chinese investments in addition to a $5.7 billion credit line. In the fall, a new Chinese delegation visited Minsk. Finally, in October 2010 Lukashenko himself visited China, which brought considerable economic benefits for Minsk: Beijing promised to invest $3.5 billion in the Belarusian economy and provide $15 billion in credits to be repaid in fifteen to twenty years.

Lukashenko not only struck an economic deal but also did his best to demonstrate Minsk's attachment to Beijing. He stated that Belarus had never forgotten those who helped them, while--in a clear sign that Belarus is quite different from Russia--Moscow's fear of 'Chinaisation' is quite strong. Lukashenko proclaimed that he would like to see as many Chinese in Belarus as possible and promised to build a Chinatown in Minsk. …