Venezuela's Sovereignty, Courtesy of China?
The ongoing political crisis in Venezuela is complex and multi-causal, though growing evidence indicates that the Hugo Chavez-created and now Nicolas Maduro-led regime in Caracas has played a major role in the country’s decline. From a strategic perspective, the emergence of failed state conditions threatens to expose a dangerous power vacuum into an already violent society; the clearest indication of such a trend is the rise and influence of Juan Guaido, whose opposition government has attracted much support across the region and the West, including the United States. At the same time, the interests of outside Maduro allies - namely Cuba and Russia - have created a competitive atmosphere over the future of Venezuela such that an inertia of power supporting Maduro’s status quo remains at the moment.
This situation is, however, also a story of major world powers and the transition in big power politics that has come to engulf international affairs. Here, of course, I am discussing the role of China as a rising superpower and how its agendas towards international relations are making a unique mark across the planet. Currently, Beijing’s influence is being felt strongly within the Venezuelan context, and its opposition to US plans and pressure stands out for its effectiveness and for its application of a new diplomatic model.
Outlining the relationship
The contemporary iteration of Sino-Venezuelan affairs reflects a number of different interests governing Chinese foreign policy. The first is sustaining China’s breakneck growth, particularly through natural resources acquisition. Second, the promotion of official initiatives like One Belt One Road (OBOR) is important to Beijing as it establishes strong trading networks around the world. Third, China similarly has great power ambitions which require a more global approach to creating and maintaining influence in external country affairs; Beijing has begun to assert itself in such a manner throughout developing nations, with Latin America as no exception.
From this, the following conditions briefly outline China’s consistent insistence on support for the Venezuelan government:
Simply put, Venezuela is a powerhouse supplier of petroleum to world markets. It has the world’s largest proven reserves and has experience exporting to large hungry markets like the United States and China. As recently as 2017, China surpassed the US as the world’s largest petroleum importer, and its efforts and continued economic growth mean that such dependence will likely continue towards higher levels into the foreseeable future.
The need to keep supplier countries closer is a strong pull for China as it expands its OBOR initiative. Venezuela is a perfect case study of this in action. China has vastly expanded its presence in the South American country in recent years, directly funding improvements in infrastructure and communications throughout Venezuela. At the same time, this has created a level of dependence on the Chinese given the nature of such investment; the challenging loan structure of Chinese payments have created crippling debt conditions for Venezuela, fueling the severity of the current economic crisis in the process.
Influence in Latin America
One can view Chinese activity in Venezuela through a broader regional lens. Here, this would indicate a desire by Beijing to expand the scope of its international influence towards the Western Hemisphere, particularly Latin America. This region has been under the predominant influence of the United States for centuries (with some notable exceptions like Cuba since 1959) but has also resisted US intervention in many cases. China has attempted to exploit this historical distrust by offering a different model for international development which can benefit those in power like Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela. By initially funding critical infrastructure and other development priorities, China helps governments engender goodwill by seemingly solving a country’s most important needs. China also benefits a country by having a large, ravenous market for exports without the regulatory restrictions often placed on trade with the US or the West at large.
Why Maduro is Defended by Beijing
China has taken strong public steps to assert its continued support for the current governing regime in Caracas even in the face of a deteriorating situation throughout Venezuela. Why would China continue to adopt such a stance? My view is that this position represents a defense of a significant investment, financial and political, taken by Beijing over the years.
China has much to gain from a strong working relationship with Maduro. In addition to the economic benefits a sympathetic government in Venezuela holds for China, Maduro is a known entity and solidly left-wing, pseudo-communist ally who will abide by Chinese wishes. This makes him an ideal candidate for the region’s first major Chinese ally, providing Beijing with a significant political foothold in Latin America. By expanding the influence from economic to political, China has a chance to create a truly global network of allies (as implicitly desired through the OBOR agenda) and rival the United States as a world diplomatic superpower. For these reasons, it is perhaps not surprising that the US has struck an aggressive tone on Venezuela, hoping to draw a Monroe Doctrine-sponsored line in the sand that limits influence from China and others before they gain too much momentum.
What Happens Next: Will a Switch Occur?
On the other side of the equation is the question, “Will China switch sides in Venezuela?” My observation is that Beijing is taking a wait and see approach to the crisis from Caracas. For them, the sanctity of their investment is what is most important. Is oil still delivered to Chinese ports? Are debt payments being made? Can Maduro secure the critical political support from the army and others who are truly powerful in Venezuela?
The consistently dehumanizing conditions on the ground in Venezuela are, however, beginning to take their toll on international relationships, particularly with China. This is clearly seen in Beijing’s softer defense of the Maduro regime in international settings such as the annual Inter-American Development Bank’s Board of Governors Meeting to have been held in Chengdu, China. In this case, the meeting was canceled after China refused to recognize representatives from opposition leader Juan Guaido’s government. Although this action supported Maduro and his regime, the Chinese did not offer any full throated endorsement of the government currently acting in Caracas. Diplomatically speaking, this may indicate that China is growing tired of Maduro’s ineffectiveness and may even signal a turning point on the nature of international pressure facing Venezuela’s rulers today.
From this, it is clear that the Venezuelan crisis is entering a new phase, a point of transition that will alter the eventual outcome of this horrid chapter in mass human poverty. The real question is whether or not a shift in international pressure will be enough to change a society perhaps already accustomed to a new normal. As such, it is worth watching China going forward as it interacts with Venezuela and Latin America to see if its development strategies will change and be effective in advancing political goals in the near future.