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What are the prospects for cooperation between Vitebsk Oblast and the provinces of China?

Андрей Мишин

With Western markets closed, special attention is paid to establishing and developing cooperation with the regions of Russia, as well as Asian countries. The key player in the Asian markets, of course, is China. Сooperation between Vitebsk Oblast and representatives of the Celestial Empire was the topic of our conversation with Andrei Mishin, analyst at the Belarusian Institute of Strategic Research.

— How would you characterize the current relations of Vitebsk Oblast with China?

— As productive and aimed at mutually beneficial long-term cooperation. The Vitebsk Oblast Executive Committee has signed eight bilateral documents (agreements, protocols, programs) on cooperation, regular contacts have been established and maintained at the level of executive authorities, organizations and companies with four provinces and one city in China.

In addition, 19 bilateral documents on cooperation between the cities and districts of the Vitebsk Oblast with the territories of China have been signed.

— Has the coronavirus pandemic affected the relationship?

— Yes, absolutely. The pandemic with its restrictive measures, which were very tough in China, "froze" projects and activities within the framework of our cooperation, which, of course, negatively affected the quantity, but at the same time allowed us to overestimate the qualitative component.

The late 2021 and most of 2022 were marked by the restoration (reset) of contacts in various directions and spheres. There was an activation within the framework of online events: dialogue platforms, forums, exhibitions, working meetings.

Now we are at the stage of actively restoring relations in traditional (offline) formats. The most intensive interaction is noted with Heilongjiang Province, which is a sister city of the Vitebsk Oblast

— Let's talk about the economy. What recent events have happened in this direction?

— Economic cooperation takes place in the format of online and offline participation in exhibitions, economic forums, visits of official delegations and representatives of business organizations.

At the same time, it is important to separate strategic complex interaction, which takes place at the level of meetings of the leadership of public administration bodies, and current trade contacts at the level of organizations, business structures.

Speaking of the latter category, we can note the active work of our organizations both through their own foreign economic services, and using the competencies and tools of intermediary organizations (for example, the Vitebsk branch of the Belarusian Chamber of Commerce and Industry). Meetings and negotiations are held regularly, and each contributes to trade turnover or strengthening of the material and technical base, in the exchange of experience and technology.

Considering the strategic interaction at the region—province level, attention should be paid to such events as the Days of the Vitebsk Oblast (September 2022) in Heilongjiang province. The event included a number of offline and online events aimed at presenting the potential of our cooperation in trade, economic, industrial, tourism and investment spheres; participation of official delegations of the Chinese provinces of Heilongjiang and Guizhou in the XI International Economic Forum in May 2023; participation of the delegation of the Vitebsk Oblast in the events of the 32nd Harbin International Trade and Economic Fair (Heilongjiang Province). There was a presentation of goods and investment projects, a step forward was made in the framework of consideration of areas and intensification of cooperation; the signing of memorandums of cooperation in innovation, education and youth policy with Shandong Province (September 2023).

— And how are things in the trade sphere, how stable and profitable are such relations for us?

— China is traditionally among the five main trade partners of the Vitebsk Oblast.

In the past decades, the minimum volume of trade fell in 2017 — the trade turnover made about USD 84 million, exports — 3.5. Since then, the export of our products to China has only been growing, and even the pandemic was not an obstacle to it (exports in 2020 and 2021 exceeded 27 million). And 2022 became a record year in terms of exports of goods, exceeding 55 million (almost 2 times increase against the 2021 level).

— Are we attractive for Chinese partners and has this interest changed as the relations were developing?

— The products demanded by Chinese partners have changed over time, which is a sign of healthy market relations. For example, in 2006, the basis of exports of the Vitebsk Oblast to China was the supply of synthetic yarns — over 97 percent, and the export basket was represented by 12 enlarged items. And by the end of 2021, the export basket of Vitebsk Oblast expanded to 28 positions, with the basis being formed by agricultural products (meat, milk and dairy products) — about 70 percent.

In general, the basis of exports is agricultural and food products (meat and dairy products, dry confectionery, rapeseed oil), there is also interest in petrochemicals (polyethylene, acrylic harness, fiberglass), flax processing, woodworking, alcoholic beverages, peat.

— What is of the greatest interest to the Chinese side in addition to economic contacts?

— Chinese delegations pay close attention to three more aspects: education, culture, tourism. Vitebsk region is actively developing cooperation with China in the field of education. Since 2021, the number of contacts between universities has increased many times, each university in the region has established business contacts with several specialized universities and colleges in the provinces of China. There is close cooperation with official intermediary organizations that accumulate Chinese applicants who want to get higher education abroad in order to send them to study with us.

In order to maintain effective real interaction, online and offline events are regularly held. In 2023, representatives of all universities of the region visited China on business visits.

At present, the primary task is to increase the number of students and undergraduates from China, taking into account the removal of pandemic restrictions and high demand for educational services. The level of education in our universities confirmed by previous Chinese students, as well as experience and competencies in popular and demanded specialties, contributes to developing relations in the educational sphere.

In the sphere of culture, there is also a post-pandemic restoration of ties. This is a component of state interaction through the Chinese Embassy in the Republic of Belarus in order to arouse interest in Chinese culture and its penetration into our society. The Chinese diaspora (including students and Chinese teachers) plays an active role in cooperation.

— What are the prospects for cooperation between Vitebsk Oblast and the provinces of China?

— Further cooperation at the regional level will take place in line with the intensification of contacts with a steady increase in foreign trade volumes (primarily our exports of goods), the establishment of cultural and educational exchange.

In the economic sphere, among the main expectations is the implementation of joint investment projects involving Chinese resources and technologies. The last bright projects were the construction of the Vitebsk hydropower plant (the largest in the republic) and participation in the modernization of the Orsha Flax Mill.

The interest of Chinese partners can be traced to large-scale projects in the field of agro-industrial complex. But here it is important to maintain a balance both in the economic development of own organizations, and from the standpoint of environmental and biological safety of the territory.