Venezuela, a testing ground for China's global ambitions
Beijing wants to maintain a foothold in Latin America, Washington’s “geopolitical backyard”. But dealing with the dysfunctional Venezuelan regime is a risky game for the Chinese, which could face similar challenges along the New Silk Roads.
Rome (AsiaNews) - The Venezuelan people continue to suffer from the lack of access to food, water, medicines and now also electricity. In fact, for five days there has been an almost total blackout, which is causing so many deaths, especially in hospitals, already paralyzed by a lack of access to basic medicines. Meanwhile, the standoff between President Nicolas Maduro and opposition leader Juan Guaido intensifies. Both the United States and China want a solution to the crisis, but for very different reasons. Below, one expert's analysis.
China has so far denied it has held negotiations with the US-backed opposition in Venezuela as pressure mounts on embattled President Nicolàs Maduro, an ideological friend of Beijing in Latin America.
The Chinese leadership has repeatedly argued that the current dispute should be settled in accordance with the Venezuelan constitution and laws, as well as under the framework of the United Nations Charter. On March 8, on the sidelines of China’s annual parliament meeting, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi urged “external” actors (that is, the United States) to refrain from interfering in the Caribbean nation’s domestic affairs.
To some degree, though, Wang opened up to the Venezuelan opposition led by Juan Guaidò, the self-declared interim president who heads the country’s National Assembly. The Chinese diplomatic envoy said China would continue to work on a political agreement between the conflicting parties.
Regime change has become a real option in recent weeks in Venezuela, where the Chinese have significant political and economic interests.
Guaidò has accused Maduro of rigging last year’s presidential elections, blaming him and his acolytes for the country’s current economic and humanitarian woes. China’s financial lifeline and investments – along with Russia’s political and economic support – have helped keep alive the socialist-populist regime in Venezuela, contributing to the ongoing catastrophe.
China has nurtured close relations with Venezuela since late leftist strongman Hugo Chàvez took power in 1999. The Asian giant has invested billion in the Latin American country over the past 15 years, according to the American Enterprise Institute, including .7 billion in the energy sector. Venezuela has the world’s largest oil reserves, and oil revenues account for about 98% of its export earnings, the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) reports.
China is also Venezuela’s largest trading partner after the United States – their combined trade totalled .3 billion in 2017. More importantly, the Chinese have loaned about billion to the Venezuelan regime since 2007. Much of this loans are repaid with oil supplies, but Caracas reportedly has an outstanding debt of about billion.
Non-interference in the internal politics of another state is a key plank of Chinese foreign conduct, but there are other reasons why China has so far kept a low profile about the Venezuela issue.
Beijing understands that its influence in the American hemisphere could be reduced with the emergence of a Venezuelan government supported by the United States. The Chinese have so far shored up the Chàvez and Maduro regimes essentially because they have been willing to stand up against America – and the same argument may apply, for example, to the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua.
Still, China would risk losing billions of dollars if a Guaidò administration were to restructure Venezuela’s sovereign debt. In this regard, the opposition leader has already expressed his desire to establish good relations with the Chinese leadership and ensure the safety of Chinese investments, especially in the Venezuelan oil sector, which was sanctioned by the Trump administration in January.
The situation is unfolding, and China is likely to maintain its support for the Maduro regime at the moment. It could change its position in the future, but the opposition in Venezuela should do more to win Chinese hearts and minds than simply promising to uphold contracts and past financial commitments.
As Zhiqun Zhu, a professor of political science and international relations at Bucknell University in the US, put it to AsiaNews, “China is very concerned that Guaidò is to a great extent propped up by the United States.” In his view, it is vital for Maduro’s rival to reassure China that he will follow an independent foreign policy and maintain a strong relationship with it. Otherwise it will be difficult for Beijing to support him.
Should the Guaidò faction gain ground, China would face the dilemma of whether to continue to back the Maduro camp. In this respect, Venezuela has become a testing ground for the global ambitions of Beijing, which could wind up coping with similar challenges elsewhere.
China’s Belt and Road Initiative for better connectivity across Eurasia and beyond, designed to boost the Asian giant’s geopolitical footprint around the globe, is not short of partnerships with dysfunctional and corrupted countries that have benefited from Chinese investments and loans.
Indeed, there are a lot of “Venezuelas” out there along the New Silk Roads that could derail Beijing’s ambitious foreign policy.