Chinese Minister of Defense Li Shangfu met with Beijing’s new bosom buddy, Russia, on August 15 before heading to Belarus for an official state visit on the 16th. The purpose of Li’s stop was to participate in the Moscow Conference on International Security. While in the Russian capital, the representative of China had discussions with the Kremlin’s defense minister, Sergei Shoigu. Whatever promises Li made of support to Russia, the negative impact of the continued flow of materials useful to Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine cannot be understated. The value and purpose of Li’s discussions in Belarus are unclear.
Despite persistent warnings from the US to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) not to provide direct weapons to Russia to increase its warfighting capability or to replenish gear lost in the fighting, China has found other means to support the Kremlin invasion machine. In a July 2023 unclassified report released by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), the intelligence community revealed:
“The PRC is providing some dual-use technology that Moscow’s military uses to continue the war in Ukraine, despite an international cordon of sanctions and export controls. The customs records show PRC state-owned defense companies shipping navigation equipment, jamming technology, and fighter-jet parts to sanctioned Russian Government-owned defense companies. Russia has continued to acquire chips through circuitous routes, with a large portion flowing through small traders in Hong Kong and mainland PRC, according to foreign press (accounts).”
The Li-Shoigu talks no doubt covered the current support provided by Beijing and other opportunities to backstop Moscow’s hemorrhage of resources necessary to continue its hostilities against Ukraine. Shoigu has been under pressure because of the consistently poor performance of the Russian forces in Ukraine and could use comforting words of China’s continuing help.
Li’s talks in Minsk, Belarus, were described in more abstract terms by media reports. “During the three-day visit, the Chinese government official is scheduled to meet with the leadership of the Belarusian Defense Department to discuss current issues of bilateral military cooperation in areas of mutual interest,” BelTA, the Belarus news services, reported. Though few details have come from the Minsk meetings, now that Russia has claimed to have positioned tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus, such talks have elevated significance. Otherwise, what the PRC’s defense minister characterized as a “comprehensive strategic partnership” between China and Belarus is a bit overblown. Except for the tight leash Russian President Putin has on his lackey-ally, Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, the term “strategic” is a stretch.
It is possible that Li was dispatched to provide a word of caution with the recent movement of forces from the Wagner Group, Russia’s private military company, to the border of Poland and Belarus. Additionally, “Poland’s government says that on 1 August, two Belarus military helicopters flew at a low altitude about two kilometers into its territory in the Bialowieza region,” BBC News reported. Bialowieza is in the northeast on Poland’s eastern border with Belarus. The Poles have put their forces on higher alert as a consequence. The Belarusian government denied that any such event happened. It’s unknown how much control Lukashenko has over the Wagner mercenary enterprise. The force for hire may be taking direction from the Kremlin.
Regardless, it would be a colossal mistake if Belarus had plans to attack Poland, a country protected as a member of NATO by an alliance agreement that would bring all NATO counties to Poland’s aid. Additionally, the US has a permanent base with US forces stationed in Poznan, Poland, with over 10,000 US troops in total throughout the country. China has an opportunity to provide counsel so that cooler heads might prevail, letting Belarus know threatening moves on the Polish border are not constructive.
At best for Russia, Li Shangfu’s visit was just a reconfirmation of China’s continuing support for the two nations’ mutual trade and defense relationship. Belarus got some geopolitical facetime as being somewhat important in the Russia-China conversation. As far as any practical developments that might lead to a cessation of fighting in Ukraine, nothing of note has happened. Despite China’s desire to be influential in bringing peace between Moscow and Kyiv, it’s still wishful thinking.
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