As officials in Ukraine anxiously watch evolving diplomatic overtures between Moscow and Beijing, China’s top leader will host the president of Belarus — a staunch Kremlin ally — with the pomp of a state visit next week.
On Saturday, China announced the visit, to take place over three days starting on Tuesday, for President Aleksandr Lukashenko of Belarus, who a year ago allowed Russian forces to use his country as a staging ground to launch their full-scale invasion of Ukraine. The presence in Beijing of such a close partner of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia is likely to increase international attention, and pressure, over China’s straddling position on the war.
The announcement of Beijing’s latest high-profile official visitor comes a week after the Biden administration accused China of considering sending lethal military assistance to Russia, a claim that Chinese officials have denied. And when Beijing issued broad principles on Friday for trying to end the fighting in Ukraine, Western leaders were disappointed after hoping for more specific ideas as well as signs that the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, might be willing to distance himself from Mr. Putin.
Mr. Lukashenko’s office said in a statement that his own visit to China would be a chance to offer a “response to acute challenges in the modern international environment.”
In a phone call with Belarus’s foreign minister, Sergei Aleinik, on Friday, his Chinese counterpart, Qin Gang, indicated that Beijing wanted to deepen ties between the two nations and find common ground over Russia’s yearlong war in Ukraine, according to a summary issued by the Chinese foreign ministry. Mr. Qin noted that when they met last year, Mr. Lukashenko and Mr. Xi had proclaimed an “all-weather comprehensive strategic partnership” between their countries.
China, Mr. Qin said, “opposes the meddling of external forces in Belarus’s domestic affairs and the illegal imposition of unilateral sanctions on Belarus,” which has been subjected to expanded Western penalties because of its support for Russia.
Yauheni Preiherman, the director of the director of the Minsk Dialogue Council on International Relations, said in written answers to questions that “Minsk has long considered China as a key foreign policy and economic partner and, therefore, invested a lot of time and political effort in deepening relations with Beijing.”
“But under the current conditions of unprecedented Western sanctions against Belarus,” he added, “China’s significance for Minsk has grown even further.”
China may gain symbolic and practical payoffs from closer ties with Belarus.
“Because Belarus is so close to Russia and to the battlefield, Lukashenko has exclusive information about the situation on the battlefield,” Mr. Preiherman said. “I am sure this will be of particular interest to the leaders in Beijing.”
Yet while China has tried with limited success to stabilize relations with the United States and other Western countries in recent months, Mr. Lukashenko will be the latest of several of China’s authoritarian partners who have recently visited Beijing — a sign that Mr. Xi is far from making a wholesale shift in China’s allegiances.
This month, Mr. Xi hosted Iran’s president, Ebrahim Raisi, telling him that China “opposes external forces interfering in Iran’s internal affairs and undermining Iran’s security and stability,” according to Xinhua, China’s main official news agency. Another visitor to Beijing this month was Hun Sen, the prime minister of Cambodia, a durable regional supporter of China.
President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine said on Friday that he, too, would like to meet directly with Mr. Xi to discuss Beijing’s proposals on ending the war. There has been no official response to his overture.
The Ukrainian leader has been trying for months to engage Mr. Xi in direct dialogue, to no avail. But Mr. Zelensky’s government has continued to tread carefully when it comes to what it says publicly regarding China, keenly aware that if Beijing were to play a more robust role in supporting the Russian military, it could fundamentally shift the momentum on the battlefield.
Shortly after the announcement of Mr. Lukashenko’s visit, Mykhailo Podolyak, a senior adviser to Mr. Zelensky, issued a statement suggesting that it was not in China’s strategic interest to side with Russia.
“You don’t bet on an aggressor who broke international law and will lose the war,” he wrote on Twitter. “This is short-sighted.”