Asian, African, and Latin American Countries: Strategic reorientation or disorientation?

Sergei Bogdan

Summary

Belarus’ relations with developing countries in 2019 were mainly limited to countries in Asia and the Middle East. Africa and Latin America have almost disappeared from the horizon of Belarusian diplomacy. The previous inertia of Minsk is now gone: the Belarusian side tests new methods and approaches in its cooperation with these regions.

The polarization of the world and the dominance of the West in it, led by the United States, push Minsk not only to get closer to the latter, but also to regulate its own policy in other regions of the world so that it could not harm its relations with the West.

Trends:
Slowing and freezing

In his annual address to the people and the National Assembly on April 19, 2019, President Lukashenko announced that he would increase cooperation with the countries of the so-called “far arc” (Asia, Africa and Latin America). But contacts with the relevant states have declined, and during the period under review serious political interaction took place only with China, Turkey and Egypt.

The meetings of the Belarusian leader on the sidelines of the Bishkek SCO summit in June were eloquent in this sense. During the meeting with the Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, it was noted that the agreements reached earlier had not been fulfilled, and in a conversation with the Prime Minister of Pakistan Imran Khan, Alexander Lukashenko noted that “due to a number of circumstances, the process of interaction in the economy and trade has slowed down”.1

The attitude towards the Non-aligned Movement also reflects the process of the marginalizing cooperation with the countries of the “far arc”. At the Movement's summits in July and October, Belarusian delegations were headed by the Belarusian representative in the UN, Valiancin Rybakou, and the Chairman of the House of Representatives, Uladzimir Andreichanka, respectively.

It is not possible to ensure that the share of the EAEU, the European Union and other countries in the export structure is approximately the same. Moreover, 37 foreign institutions (out of 57) do not fulfill the tasks set for the export of goods. On indirect grounds, there is reason to believe that these are mainly institutions in the countries of the “far arc”.2

Minsk, however, did not sit idly by. On January 29, the President of Belarus extended for 2019–2020 the validity of decree No. 466 of September 24, 2009, which promotes sales of Belarusian products in new markets. On April 22, news emerged on the intergovernmental agreement between Belarus and Mongolia on the allocation of an export credit for the supply of Belarusian equipment.

The Belarusian side has continued to use the humanitarian mechanisms it has used in recent years to improve relations with remote regions. In 2015–2019, four batches of humanitarian aid were transferred to Syria, and more than a thousand of Syrian children were hosted for rest.

In 2019, children from other countries, including Japan and Egypt, were invited to take a vacation. In April, humanitarian aid was provided to victims of the cyclone in Mozambique and Zimbabwe. For the first time, Minsk has allocated grants for students from Arab countries, in particular Egypt and Syria, to study in Belarusian universities.

Belarus uses its membership in the EEU and its Alliance with Russia to increase its importance in relations with certain countries. On February 14, Alexander Lukashenko took part in an informal meeting with the presidents of Russia, Iran and Turkey in Sochi. In January, the Belarusian delegation took part in negotiations on the signing of a free trade agreement between Egypt and the EEU in Cairo. This topic was mentioned again during the talks between the Presidents of the two countries in June.3 Also, the topic of relations with the EEU played a significant role in the negotiations with the Singapore delegation headed by Senior Minister of State at the Ministry of Trade and Industry, Koh Poh Koon (June, 3–5).

Missiles and engines from China

China remained a priority in Belarus’ foreign policy. It is noteworthy that only in China did Minsk decide to expand its network of foreign missions when in July the Council of Ministers decided to open the Consulate General in Chongqing, China.

On April 2–3, Shen Yueyue, Vice-Chairwoman of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, visited Belarus. On April 25–26, President Lukashenko paid a working visit to China. He took part in the Second Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation, where he met with the Chinese President Xi Jinping and his Deputy Wang Qishan. More than 20 agreements and contracts were signed during the visit.

More specialized contacts also took place. For example, on September 5–6, a delegation headed by the Deputy Chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference of Guangdong province, Deng Haiguang, visited Belarus.

Top officials also worked with Chinese business representatives. On July 1, Alexander Turchin, First Deputy Prime Minister of Belarus, met with the Head of the SINOMACH Corporation, Zhang Xiaolun (in 2014, the government of Belarus and SINOMACH signed an agreement on strategic cooperation, under which the Viciebsk hydroelectric power station was built). On 29 of July, Alexander Turchin met with the Head of the “Greenland Holdings Group”, Zhang Yuliang.

On October 14, MAZ plant and Weichai Corporation officially opened a joint engine production plant in the Belarusian-Chinese industrial Park “Great Stone”. The construction began in April 2018. The project cost was USD 20 million, of which 14 million was Chinese investment. The plant can conduct completely knocked down assembly of engines (up to 20 thousand per year) of Euro-5 and Euro-6 standards. In July, construction of a plant for the production of manual transmissions (up to 20 thousand per year) began in “Great Stone”) – another joint project of MAZ and “Weichai” company. The project cost is USD 17 million (70% will be Chinese investments).4

Military cooperation also continued: the Chief of the Joint Staff Department of the Central Military Commission of China Li Zuocheng (May 28–31) and the Vice Chief of the Equipment Development Department of the Central Military Commission of China Liu Sheng (September 14–16) paid visits. Most likely, it was also about continuing the implementation of the agreement on the development of an anti-aircraft missile system. This version is also supported by the visit of the Belarusian delegation to China on December 2–6, as well as Alexander Lukashenko’s remark that “we are currently working on a new generation missile with a Chinese base”.5

Relations with China developed further due to the multilateral mechanisms of international cooperation established by Beijing. On January 17, Belarus became a member of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB).

Although Belarus is only an observer in the SCO, on June 14, President Lukashenko took part in the SCO summit in Bishkek, and Prime Minister Sergei Rumas did the same in Tashkent (November 2).

On October 20–23, Defense Minister (at that time) Andrey Ravkov visited China to take part in the 9th Beijing Xiangshan Forum on Security.

On December 9–12, the head of the Department of International Military Cooperation of the Defense Ministry, Aleh Voinau, took part in a meeting of heads of international military cooperation bodies of SCO members in Beijing. Given the proximity of Beijing and Islamabad, a working visit to Pakistan by the Belarusian military delegation headed by Mr. Voinau on December 17–19 could also be related to some trilateral projects.

Belarus provided support to China on the international stage. For example, on April 29, an International Conference of the “Silk Road” Support Group of the OSCE PA was held in Minsk. The event was organized on the initiative of the National Assembly of Belarus.

From Mongolia to Bangladesh – consultations alone

Interaction with Vietnam continued, but rather by inertia. On June 25–26, a delegation headed by a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Vietnam, editor-in- chief of the newspaper “Nhan Dan” Thuan Huu visited Belarus.

On September 23–27, a delegation headed by Deputy Prime Minister of Belarus Ihar Lyashenka paid a working visit to Vietnam. During the visit, a Memorandum was signed on the supply of rubber to “Belshina”, a tire production company, as well as truck kits to MAZ.

On 26 September in the province Hungyen a launch ceremony of MAZ trucks assembly plant took place. It will produce up to 3,000 vehicles annually. The Vietnamese side owns 70% of the joint venture, and the rest belongs to the Belarusian side. The total investment amount is about USD 10 million.

On December 12–13, Chairwoman of the National Assembly of Vietnam Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan and Deputy Prime Minister Vuong Dinh Hue visited Belarus. At the meeting projects for the supply of Vietnamese rubber and agricultural products to Belarus were discussed, as well as the hasty certification of Belarusian meat and dairy and poultry enterprises in Vietnam.

Although last year the volume of trade turnover was about USD 200 million (USD 115 million in 2018), this is far from the goal set by the presidents of both countries in 2017 to achieve a turnover of USD 500 million.

In cooperation with other Asian countries, only the visit of Bangladesh Commerce Minister, Tipu Munshi, to Belarus (April 23–25) and the trip of Industry Minister Pavel Utyupin to Afghanistan (April 4–5) should be noted.

Turkish like-minded people

In recent years, Turkey has become Minsk's main partner in the Middle East. On January 15–16, Turkish Minister of Defense, Hulusi Akar, visited Belarus and was welcomed by President Lukashenko.

On April 15–16 President Lukashenko paid a visit to Turkey. However, despite political contacts, the trade turnover in 2019 decreased by 10% compared to 2018 (USD 984 million).

Nevertheless, relations with Turkey in the economic sphere are not declining. In April the assembling of tractors “Belarus” began at a newly built factory in Kirikkale in the framework of the trilateral project with the participation of the Ganja automobile plant (Azerbaijan).

On 27–28 August Belarus was visited by the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Turkey Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu.

On September 9–10, a delegation of the Turkish Parliament visited Belarus, and on October 31, Turkish Minister of Agriculture Bekir Pakdemirli arrived in Minsk.

IT-technologies for Egypt

The cooperation with Cairo was also noticeable, but far inferior to communication with Ankara. At the end of April, a delegation of Minsk region headed by the Deputy Governor of the region visited the Egyptian governorate of South Sinai, and in May, the Deputy Minister of Military Industry of Egypt arrived in Minsk for “MILEX 2019”.

On June 17–18, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah as-Sisi paid an official visit to Belarus. This is the first such visit, although Alexander Lukashenko has been in Egypt twice (the last time was in January 2017). Sisi met with the President and the Prime Minister, as well as with the heads of major Belarusian enterprises.

Since 2016, trade with Egypt has almost doubled every year. According to official information, already in the process of preparing for the visit, Belarusian enterprises signed contracts for the supply of their products to Egypt in the amount of about USD 70 million.

Along with the traditional promotion of mechanical engineering and food industry products, the Foreign Ministry also draws attention to the possibilities of the domestic information and telecommunications industry. In particular, in March, the Belarusian Embassy arranged a visit to Cairo for representatives of a major Belarusian IT company, “Synesis”.

On September 3–4, the 6th session of the Belarusian-Egyptian Joint Trade Commission was held in Minsk with the participation of First Deputy Minister of Trade of Egypt Ahmad Anter, who also met with Belarusian Prime Minister Sergei Rumas.

On 8–10 December, Minister of Industry, Pavel Utyupin, went to Egypt. He was accompanied by representatives of Belarusian companies, including the CEO of MAZ. During the negotiations, the delivery of the first batch of MAZ machine kits to the Helwan Machinery and Equipment Plant was agreed.

Waiting for contracts to rebuild Syria

As for the rest of the Middle East, we can only mention the official visit of Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem to Belarus on July 22. In recent years, the trade turnover between the countries has been about USD 40 million, almost entirely due to Belarusian exports. Minsk hopes to take part in the reconstruction of this country, which will be financed by external investors.

Otherwise, the main format of communication with the region was consultations of the Belarusian foreign Ministry at the level of Deputy Ministers with the relevant departments of foreign countries: Iran (March and July), Iraq (September), Qatar, the UAE and Oman in November).

The visit of the Head of the Department of International Military Cooperation of the Defense Ministry, Aleh Voinau on May 21–23 to Lebanon and Syria had little to do with Middle East policy. It was about expanding Belarusian participation in the UN Interim Force in Lebanon.

Against this background, contacts with businessmen from the UAE and Kuwait looked more significant. On April 18, President Lukashenko and the heads of the Cabinet of Ministers met with the leadership of the Dubai International Financial Center (IFC).

On April 29, First Deputy Prime Minister (at that time) Alexander Turchin discussed with a delegation of the Kuwait Fund for Arab Economic Development the allocation of a preferential loan for the construction of a regional clinical oncology center in Hrodna.

On September 24–25, a delegation of UAE business circles visited Belarus, which included representatives of the UAE government and major Emirati companies (Elite Agro, First Bank of Abu Dhabi, Senaat General Holding Corporation, Al Jaraf Fisheries, International Holdings Company).

Is there anything left of contacts with Africa and Latin America?

On January 16–17, Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa paid a visit to Belarus, during which President Lukashenko offered him a “strategic partnership”. In 2018, several multi-million dollar contracts were signed for the supply of Belarusian equipment to Zimbabwe with the financial support of the Development Bank of Belarus and the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe, but no deliveries were reported at the beginning of 2020.

Difficulties in conducting business with African countries were the reasons for the transfer of the African direction to the Head of the Presidential Administration, Viktor Sheyman. On behalf of Alexander Lukashenko, Viktor Sheyman visited a number of African countries. They are working on establishing joint ventures in agriculture, as well as a freight transport company in the South of the continent. Belarus has entered a project to build a solar power plant in Zimbabwe.

The Latin American direction of Belarusian diplomacy was finally marginalized. Venezuela may seem to be an exception, whose relations are maintained due to the inevitable material losses for the Belarusian side in the event of the overthrow of the Venezuelan government.

Conclusions

The policy regarding the countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America is partly determined by the state of Belarusian relations with the West and Russia, both in general and in certain sectors. In the foreseeable future, we should not expect a return to contacts with states that are seriously opposed to the West.

In fact, the relationship with the “far arc” will mainly focus on communicating with a few partners. China and Turkey will remain among them, but there can be no such confidence about other countries. At the same time, the current changes in Belarusian policy in the developing world are not the result of a certain political disorientation in Minsk, but a planned and smooth strategic reorientation.