Is the Belt and Road Initiative a Target in The Unrest in Belarus?

Hussein Askary
Belt and Road Institute in Sweden

It is a matter of fact (as will be described below) that Belarus has emerged as a key nodal point for the rail traffic between the EU countries, especially in Northern Europe, and China along the New Silk Road (C in map). This New Eurasian Land-Bridge corridor is one of the key routes of the 6 land-based corridors of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Chinese President Xi Jinping even called Belarus “a pearl” on BRI, and Chinese banks and companies have invested billions of dollars in the country. With the outbreak of the Corona Pandemic, this route became decisive for the shipment to Europe of medical materials such as medicines, ventilators, and personal protection materials (PPM) mostly produced in China. Besides this fact, China’s massive investments in Belarusian industrial parks and free trade zones are helping this country to regain, but in a modern and efficient way, its Soviet-era industrial capacity, promoting, thus, economic and social development of the Belarusian people.

Is this China-Belarus-EU cooperation a target of political forces who are calling for a sudden, and consequently, violent overthrow of the Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko? We hope not. But a look at some commentaries in Swedish and other media suggest that this might be a strong factor in the sense of “urgency” in the calls to overthrow the Belarusian government.

The Swedish think tank, Dagens Arena, which is connected to the ruling Social Democratic Party, published an editorial on the situation in Belarus, in which the author stated the following: “At the same time, Lukashenko has taken steps to become more independent of both Russia and the EU. Belarus is strategically located along the new Silk Road, China’s gigantic infrastructure project that will, among other things, connect China with the Baltic Sea. And China has no interest in democracy in Belarus. On the contrary. It is urgent for the EU to take the side of the people.”

The leftist pro-Social Democratic party daily Aftonbladet emphasized in an editorial on August 15 with the title “It is Possible to Overturn the Bunker in Minsk”, the author emphasized: “We must not forget China either. Through China’s huge infrastructure project, the New Silk Road, Belarus finds itself in a particularly strategic position for the dictatorship in Beijing.”
The Swedish liberal daily Svenska Dagbladet has also made the connection clear between the unrest in Belarus and the Belt and Road and China. The article titled “Lukashenko under more pressure – It Can Get Bloody!” states: “China has no problem with authoritarian dictatorships and has a fairly strong economic interest in Belarus. The countries have a military-technical cooperation and China has invested a lot in infrastructure in Belarus, which is a logistical hub in China’s Belt and Road project.”

In a cynical piece in the Nikkei Asia Review titled “Unrest threatens China’s Belt and Road ‘success story’ in Belarus”, the author writes: “Belarus has emerged as a Belt and Road linchpin due to a combination of geography and politics. The former Soviet republic is located near the port cities of the Baltic states and serves as a major land transit route between Europe and Asia, making it a convenient gateway to Western markets for China.” Admitting that the cooperation between China and Belarus was a win-win success story, the author gleefully suggests that “the narrative of success is now under threat.” An expert is cited saying “Any worsening of Belarus’ position on the international stage is clearly a threat for China’s plans to implement the Belt and Road Initiative.”

Pompeo “cares” about the people

U.S. State Secretary Michael Pompeo was on a tour in several Central European countries between August 11 and 15 , with the very open goal of persuading them to abandon cooperating with China and Russia. Speaking in front of the Czech Senate on August 12, Pompeo wasted no time to meddle in Belarusian affairs and lash out at China, saying: “We were very concerned about (the election) wasn’t held in a way that was free and fair.” The benevolent Secretary of State further said: “We care about that. Because we care deeply about the Belarusian people.” Concerning China, he said: “And so when you see regimes like the Chinese Communist Party, they know that’s, in the end, going to crush them. They appreciate that it’s going to deny them freedom. We see what’s happening in Hong Kong to entrepreneurs. That’s the model that the Chinese Communist Party brings when they show up.” Pompeo promised the countries in the region that if they abandon their cooperation with China and Russia, the U.S. would be “right there alongside with them”. But what these countries need is not somebody behind them breathing hot air down their necks, but investments, something which the U.S. has been oblivious to. Concerning Belarus, the U.S. not only imposes sanctions (although provided limited relief since 2015), but even discourages foreign investment in the country, in spite of the fact that it lists all the merits of investing in the Great Stone Industrial Park (see below). China, on the other hand, has invested tens of billions of dollars in Belarus and other East and Central European countries with no political strings attached.

The Importance of Belarus for East-West trade

According to the Hong Kong Trade Development Council (HKTDC) Belarus is strategically located on the new Eurasia land bridge, eight rail container routes on the China-Western Europe trade pass through Belarus, enabling cargo to move much faster between China and Germany via Kazakhstan, Russia, Belarus and Poland, taking about 17 days. The freight time has been reduced to 14 days due to effective clearing systems and cross border transit facilities. In comparison, sea freight takes around three weeks longer. As shippers have become more receptive to the expanding rail container routes, more than 3,000 Sino-European trains used Belarus’s rail network in 2017. The volume has since then increased dramatically as new cities and ports in Western Europe and the Baltic sea were opened as destinations for the trade route from China.

In July this year, container traffic between China and Europe witnessed a new record. The volumes transited by the United Transport and Logistics Company – Eurasian Rail Alliance (UTLC ERA), a joint venture of Belarusian, Kazakh and Russian railways. The UTLC ERA carried 52,5 thousand TEUs (twenty-foot equivalent unit containers) across the broad-gauge railways. “That is twice as much as the same figure last year and represents an absolute volume record in monthly Eurasian container traffic”, according to the specialized website RailFreight. “We had more than 100 trains operating daily, and the total fleet managed by UTLC ERA already amounts to almost 7 thousand railcars,” said the CEO of UTKC ERA, Alexey Grom.

The railway route starts in several cities and provinces in China, mainly Xian, Chongqing, and Chengdu, and terminates in several major European ports and logistics hubs like Duisburg, Hamburg, Rotterdam, and Liége. These ports play the transshipment role to the rest of Western Europe and Scandinavia. Several new lines to the Baltic Sea, especially through Klaipeda, Lithuania, with direct connections to Swedish ports like Trelleborg. In April, a new line of freight from Xian to Trelleborg was established through the port in Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea. However, all the lines pass through Belarus.

So, in what way is this efficient and smooth flow of essential goods between East and West is supposed to be a threat to Europe and Sweden as some politicians and journalists claim? Obviously, those who make such claims are not involved in the day-to-day provision of goods and services to their societies, but merely have opinions about everything everyone else does.

The Great Stone Industrial Park

Another milestone in the China-Belarus cooperation, which is actually helping the Belarusian people, is the development of Great Stone Industrial Park. The park is 91,5 sq. kilometers large, with a special legal status conducive to doing business, with big incentives for foreign investors. The Park is located 25 km from Minsk, and is in close proximity to the international airport, railway lines, and the Berlin-Moscow transnational highway. It also has access to the Baltic Sea through the Port of Klaipeda in Lithuania. In the Park territory construction is planned for production and living areas, offices and shopping malls, financial services, and research centers.

The emphasis in the park is on high-tech and competitive innovation in products with high export potential, as the list of resident companies shows. The technologies involved are fine chemicals, electronics, information and telecommunication, biomedicine, new materials, machinery manufacturing, warehousing and logistics, e-commerce and big data processing. Any company regardless of country of capital origin can act as a resident of the industrial park. So, far 60 plus international companies, mostly Chinese, are registered in the Great Stone park. Huawei and ZTE are among the biggest.

According to some estimates, the park will attract more than 200 high-tech enterprises with over 120,000 employees in the coming few years. Given the magnitude of the project, hundreds of Belarusian companies elsewhere in the country would benefit from it as sub-contractors, suppliers and logistics and transport managers. The Belarusian employees in these companies are highly skilled and enjoy greater benefits than their peers outside the park. For instance, the tax on income of employees is 9% as compared to 13% in the rest of the nation. This project, combined with the development of Belarus as a key transit area for the trade between East and West along the Belt and Road is a major contributor to the economic and social development of the people of Belarus, whose welfare Mr. Pompeo is allegedly so worried about. This project has also helped Belarus’ opening up to the rest of the world, which is a key element in economic and political reform.

Once again, when looking at the facts on the ground, turning the Belarus-China economic cooperation into a “threat” to Europe and the world is not only inaccurate and ill-informed, but bizarrely twisted.

Will the unrest affect the Belt and Road?

According to the Chinese side, the latest developments will not affect the BRI or cooperation with China, since the joint projects are purely economic and there are no political strings attached. China seems to be committed to the long-term relationship with the people of Belarus, who according to China, should be the only ones to decide their own future.

On August 19, Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs Zhao Lijian said: “China respects Belarusian people’s right to choose their own development path and their efforts in defending their country’s independence, sovereignty, security and economic development.”

The semi-official Chinese daily, Global Times, reported that “Belarus unrest won’t shake BRI cooperation with China”. It cited an employee of The China-Belarus Great Stone Industrial Park as saying that “most of the Chinese companies in the park were not affected by the social unrest in Belarus, and the BRI projects in the country were unlikely to be impacted in the future.” It reports further that according to statistics from China’s Ministry of Commerce released in August, there are 63 enterprises in the park, with investment surpassing $1 billion. Global Times correctly states: “The industrial park counts for a lot for Belarus, as the country sees it as an industrial hub that can drive reform and its opening-up to the outside world, said Wang Yiwei, director of the International Affairs Institute at the Renmin University of China.”

It is noteworthy that the opposition groups in Belarus have not taken up the cooperation with China as a factor in their dispute with the government. It is easy to understand that, since a great number of the people they want to attract to their side are highly skilled and well-educated workers employed in such enterprises.

One unfortunate phenomenon in Sweden and many Western countries is that in reporting or rather opinionating on developments related to the Belt and Road Initiative or China’s economic cooperation with other nations, seldom any facts are presented. There is a great deal of prejudice and political agendas involved in this kind of “journalism”, which does not really reflect reality. The Belt and Road Institute in Sweden, through examining many case studies, has found this phenomenon to be prevalent. A better understanding of matters related to the BRI and China can easily be achieved by looking objectively at the reality on the ground through information that can be easily fetched from publicly accessible sources.

Learn more about the BRI!