A small contingent of Chinese paramilitaries arrived in Belarus this week for joint exercises with their counterparts from the host country. United Shield 2017 brings together members of the People’s Armed Police Force and the Belarusian Interior Ministry. Both organizations are trained and equipped for suppressing revolts.
The modest scale of United Shield appears intentional. Belarus isn’t a vital strategic ally to China but it does form part of the ambitious Belt and Road project that links the world’s second largest economy with foreign markets across the Eurasian landmass.
Opening ceremonies for the 11-day program took place in Minsk where 31 PAP/PAPF personnel led by Major General Yang Guangyao met with another 31-man contingent from the local Interior Ministry. Photos of the event were published by the PLA’s online news outlet on July 11.
While exercises with former Soviet states aren’t too rare for the PLA and its branches there’s growing evidence the Lukashenko regime in particular is slowly becoming a trusted client. Military equipment bought from China was used during a recent military parade.
The Chinese PAP/PAPF were separated from the PLA in 1983. Their tasks involve protecting critical infrastructure and national borders. United Shield 2017 is just the latest trip to Belarus for cross-training following similar counter-terrorism drills in 2011, 2013, and 2015.
Ties between Belarus and the China were negligible throughout the 1990s and 2000s. But this changed from 2008 onward as the rest of Europe was sunk by the global financial crisis while sanctions were imposed on the Lukashenko regime. Desperate for export markets, an economic courtship of China began in 2011.
A breakthrough occured in 2012 when Minsk agreed to set aside a huge chunk of land for an industrial park that Chinese companies could use. The plans for Great Stone are so comprehensive it includes an airport, apartment blocks, warehouses, and recreational facilities.
For recession wracked Belarus to seek aid from China appears peculiar at first but it makes sense given its inconvenient relationship with neighboring Russia. Moscow wants permanent bases in the country but refuses to provide advanced weapons unless these are paid for. Hence, China appears a trustier ally.
Units from the armed forces of both countries are participating in this year’s International Army Games. It’s interesting to see how far Sino-Belarusian cooperation goes in the coming years.