March 24, 2023

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Lukashenko Xi meeting: Putin ally meets Chinese leader Xi Jinping in Beijing

Hong Kong (CNN) Chinese leader Xi Jinping He met with his Belarusian counterpart Alexander Lukashenko – a close ally of Vladimir Putin – on Wednesday, a state visit that comes as the West raises fears that China could grow close to Russia – by considering providing lethal aid for Putin’s war in Ukraine.

Xi welcomed Lukashenko at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Wednesday for their first face-to-face meeting since the two leaders elevated relations to an “all-weather comprehensive strategic partnership” on the sidelines of the recent Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit. September in Uzbekistan, which Putin also attended.

“Today we will jointly lay out new visions for the development of bilateral ties… Our long-term friendly exchanges will keep our friendship unbreakable,” Xi told Lukashenko during the meeting, according to Chinese state media.

The visit by the Belarusian leader — who allowed Russian forces to use Belarus for their initial incursion into Ukraine last year — comes as tensions between the United States and China have intensified in recent weeks, including concerns from Washington that Beijing is considering sending lethal aid to the faltering war effort. The Kremlin does. Beijing denied those allegations.

The meeting came a day after US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Tuesday made some of his most direct comments yet on how the United States should respond to any lethal support from China for Russia.

Blinken warned that Washington would target Chinese companies or nationals involved in any effort to send deadly aid to Russia in its war in Ukraine, as he spoke during a visit to Kazakhstan. He later said he had no plans to meet with his Russian or Chinese counterparts at the G20 foreign ministers’ meeting scheduled in New Delhi, India, on March 2.

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Beijing – which claims to be a neutral party in the conflict – has backed away from US suggestions that it is considering sending lethal aid. Its foreign ministry said on Monday that China was “actively promoting peace talks and a political settlement of the crisis” while the United States was “injecting lethal weapons into the battlefield in Ukraine”.

Beijing last week issued a 12-point position on a “political solution” to the crisis in a document calling for peace talks to end the year-long war. Xi reiterated China’s stance on the conflict to Lukashenko, according to a Chinese statement of the meeting.

“The Chinese paper on a political solution to the Ukraine crisis has been issued,” Xi said. “The essence of China’s position is to promote peace and talks. We must adhere to the direction of political settlement, abandon all Cold War mentality, respect the legitimate security concerns of all countries, and build a balanced, effective and sustainable European security structure.”

“Relevant countries should stop politicizing and harnessing the global economy and do things that are conducive to cease-fire and war and resolve the crisis peacefully,” Xi said.

According to the Chinese statement, Lukashenko said that the Belarusian side “fully agrees with and supports China’s position and proposal on a political solution to the Ukrainian crisis, which is important for resolving the crisis.”

However, Western leaders criticized its launch, accusing China of already siding with Russia. Responding to the meeting between Xi and Lukashenko, Blinken said that China “cannot do it both ways”, “publicly positioning itself as a force for peace” while “continuing to fan the flames of the fire that Vladimir Putin has kindled.”

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He added that there were “some positive elements” in the Chinese peace proposal, but warned that “if China were really serious about this, the first principle that puts forward sovereignty, it would have spent the whole of the past year working in support of restoring Ukraine’s full and complete sovereignty.”

Blinken accused China of doing the opposite in support of peace in Ukraine “in terms of its efforts to push Russian propaganda and disinformation about obstructing the war and handling it in favor of Russia.”

Lukashenko said he fully supports Beijing’s “latest” security initiative, days after it announced a 12-point position on Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.

Lukashenko also met with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang on Wednesday and called on the two countries to “intensify” their relations, according to a statement from the Belarusian government.

“We do not have closed topics for cooperation. We cooperate in all ways. And most importantly, we have not set ourselves the task of being friends or acting against third countries,” Lukashenko told me in the statement.

The consolidation of ties between Minsk and Beijing comes along with a years-long downturn in Belarus’ relations with the European Union, and it may seek to diversify its economy dependent on Russia.

The ex-Soviet country was targeted by sweeping sanctions from the United States and its allies in response to Moscow’s aggression after Lukashenko allowed Russian forces to invade Ukraine across the 1,000km-long Ukraine-Belarusian border north of Kiev.

Nor does the EU recognize the outcome of Lukashenko’s 2020 election victory – which sparked mass pro-democracy protests in the country and was followed by a brutal government crackdown.

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There have been fears throughout the conflict in Ukraine that Belarus will again be used as a staging area for another Russian offensive, or that Lukashenko’s own forces will join the war. Before visiting Moscow earlier this month, Lukashenko claimed there was “no way” his country would send troops into Ukraine unless it was attacked.

Both China and Belarus have indicated previously that the United States does not want to see an end to the conflict.

In remarks to reporters earlier this month before he headed to Moscow to meet Putin, Lukashenko stressed that he wanted to see “peaceful negotiations” and accused the United States of preventing Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky from negotiating.

“Only the United States needs this massacre, only they want it,” he said.

Beijing has made similar assurances, with China’s top diplomat Wang Yi telling a security conference in Munich earlier this month that China is “not adding fuel to the fire,” and “opposing reaping benefits from this crisis,” referring to regular Chinese propaganda. Messages that the United States is deliberately prolonging the war to advance its geopolitical interests and increase the profits of arms manufacturers.

CNN’s Martin Guilando and Sandy Seydoux contributed to this report.