Ukraine war: Why China is conducting military exercises in Belarus

By Isaac M July 9, 2024

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The Chinese military has begun joint drills in Belarus that are being held over the next 11 days in Brest, close to the border with Nato state Poland.

The joint military exercises by two of Russia’s most important allies come after Belarus became the 10th member of the China-led Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) during its 24th meeting of heads of council in Astana, Kazakhstan.

Belarus’s government said the drills “will allow … the laying of a foundation for further development of Belarusian-Chinese relations in the field of joint training of troops”.

China described it as “anti-terrorist training”, and said the drills were according to “an annual plan and consensus”.

This is the first time in six years that China has sent military personnel to Belarus for such exercises, with their last bilateral joint drills taking place in China. Both countries also participated in Russia’s Vostok multilateral exercise in August 2022.

Last August, China and Belarus agreed to conduct more joint military drills following a meeting between China’s then defence chief Li Shangfu and Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko in Minsk.

Photos released by the Belarusian defence ministry showed China’s People’s Liberation Army troops arriving in Belarus on a Chinese Y-20 strategic transport aircraft.

Brest is located less than 5km (3.1 miles) from the border with Poland, a member state of both the EU and Nato and a significant ally of Ukraine since Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022. Brest is also only 50km away from Ukraine itself.

Martin Sebena, a lecturer at the University of Hong Kong who specialises in China-Europe relations, said the timing and location of the drills mean they are likely to be seen as further signalling of Chinese support for Russia and its allies in Europe.

He told the South China Morning Post: “The exercise will overlap with the Nato summit and takes place on the … border where Belarus for many months has ‘weaponised’ migrant flows to pressure Poland – and by extension, the EU and Nato.”

Nato’s summit is scheduled to be held in Washington between 9-11 July.

Mr Sebena said: “It adds two extra layers to the Polish perception. First, the Poles have been reducing train transport from China via the Malaszewicze hub [near Brest] in fears of it being used for tariff circumvention, while China has worked hard to increase train-based overland trade from western China to Europe – with this hub being basically the only place where those trains enter through the EU.

“Second, the Polish president has recently been warmly welcomed in China, and since the Poles will see this exercise as directed at them, hence questions are arising in Poland about how genuine the Chinese side was.”

Chinese state-run media said the country’s forces also took part in a military parade in Minsk, the Belarusian capital, last Wednesday, marking the 80th anniversary of Belarusian liberation.

“I believe that thanks to the efforts of both sides, China-Belarus relations will continue to demonstrate robust growth and make substantial progress,” Chinese president Xi Jinping said at the SCO summit in Astana where he also met with the Belarusian president.

Mr Lukashenko is one of Mr Putin’s most faithful allies, and the two have exchanged several visits even as many nations have shunned Moscow after its invasion of Ukraine, the most recent being a two-day trip by Mr Putin to Minsk last month.

Mr Lukashenko named a new military chief during the visit, signalling continued alignment with Russia. Major General Pavel Muraveyka, who was appointed as chief of Belarus’s General Staff and as first deputy defence minister, is known for publicly threatening neighbouring Nato members Poland and Lithuania.

Russia’s deployment of tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus further solidifies their strategic partnership, with implications for regional security and Nato relations, experts say. In 2023, Russia moved some of its tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus.

“Muraveyko’s appointment is an open challenge to the West and a desire to show Putin Minsk’s complete loyalty and willingness to maintain a strategic partnership with Russia,” independent Belarusian analyst Valer Karbalevich told the Associated Press last month.

“The deployment of Russian nuclear weapons in Belarus does not leave Lukashenko a strategic choice, turns him into a hostage of the Kremlin and firmly binds Minsk to Moscow’s policies,” Mr Karbalevich said.

Mr Putin travelled to China in May for his second visit in just six months, reflecting closer alignment between the two nations amid increasing Western scrutiny and sanctions.

“The China-Russia relationship today is hard-earned, and the two sides need to cherish and nurture it,” Mr Xi told Mr Putin as the leaders met in Beijing. “China is willing to … jointly achieve the development and rejuvenation of our respective countries, and work together to uphold fairness and justice in the world.”

There are also increasing concerns that China may be considering providing military assistance to Russia, which US officials warn would have serious consequences.

Additional reporting by agencies

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