Venezuela is infamous for being the oil rich but dollar poor Latin American country whose years of inflation stemming from a combination of severe US sanctions and pre-2018 trends in declining oil prices, wrought a heavy toll on the nation. By contrast, China is the energy hungry economic superpower looking to expand the One Belt–One Road initiative beyond its traditional Asian and Afro-Mediterranean focal points. When one then understands that both countries are ruled by traditional leftist parties, one sees a self-evident good match as China has that which Venezuela needs most of all (cash) while Venezuela has the oil that is fuelling the substantial Chinese economy.
Because of this, the recent meeting in Beijing between Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and his Chinese host Xi Jinping went predictably well. A report from official Chinese media outlet Xinhua described the meeting in the following way:
“In the face of new circumstances and new challenges, China and Venezuela should jointly deepen friendly mutual trust, promote mutually beneficial cooperation in an innovative way, continue to advance common development, and drive China-Venezuela ties to a new height to better benefit the two peoples, Xi said.
The two sides should cement political mutual trust, maintain the momentum of high-level exchanges, and integrate their bilateral friendship in all aspects of cooperation between the two countries, he said.
China appreciates Venezuela’s understanding and support on issues concerning China’s core interests and major concerns, said Xi, noting that China will continue to support the Venezuelan government’s efforts in seeking stable development and a development path suited to its national conditions, and China is willing to strengthen exchanges with Venezuela on governance.
China and Venezuela should improve and innovate pragmatic cooperation, said Xi, calling on the two sides to take the signing of a memorandum of understanding (MOU) on building the Belt and Road as an opportunity, to forge ahead the synergy and implementation of bilateral cooperation consensus, enhance the independent development capability of Venezuela, and promote the sustainable development of cooperation between the two countries.
The Chinese president called for closer people-to-people and regional exchanges, to consolidate the social foundation for bilateral friendship.
‘The two sides should strengthen multilateral coordination and cooperation, continue to intensify communication within such international and regional organizations as the United Nations, participate together in the reform and construction of the global governance system, and safeguard the legitimate rights and interests of developing countries,’ said Xi.
Xi said that China has always promoted cooperation with Latin American countries on the basis of the principles of equality, mutual benefit, and common development, and is willing to promote the building of the China-CELAC (Community of Latin American and Caribbean States) Forum and the steady development of China-Latin America ties.
Maduro said the two peoples enjoyed a long-term friendship. Thanks to the joint efforts of both sides, bilateral ties had withstood various tests and become increasingly solid and fruitful.
The fact that the two sides reached consensus on expanding cooperation in a wide range of fields during his visit fully demonstrated that the bilateral cooperation is comprehensive and compatible with Venezuela’s economic recovery, growth and prosperity program, he said.
The Venezuelan side appreciated China’s long-standing understanding and support, said Maduro, expecting to learn more about China’s successful experience in reform, opening up, and governance.
Venezuela is willing to actively participate in the construction of the Belt and Road, explore effective financing methods, strengthen cooperation in such areas as energy and production capacity, and expand people-to-people exchanges, said Maduro.
Maduro said he highly agrees with Xi’s concept of advocating to build a community with a shared future for humanity, adding that Venezuela will work with China to safeguard multilateralism.
He also expressed firm support for the development of the China-CELAC Forum, saying Venezuela will make positive efforts to enhance China-Latin America cooperation.
After the talks, the two leaders witnessed the signing of several cooperative documents, including an MOU on jointly promoting the Belt and Road Initiative”.
While it remains to be seen how integrated the South American nation will become in terms of its participation in One Belt–One Road, the fact that both countries signed an MOU regarding Caracas’s participation in the global initiative will be viewed in Washington as a clear challenge to the US policy of economically isolating Venezuela. Beyond this, with Donald Trump adamant about his ability to secure a long term peace deal with DPRK leader Kim Jong-un and with the US war on Iran likely to remain a proxy war fought in Iraq, Afghanistan and to a lesser extent in Syria, Venezuela remains the leading global candidate for a US led regime change operation.
This is the case for a number of reasons. While US regime change wars in the Middle East have captured headlines throughout the world since the beginning of the 21st century, throughout the 20th century, Latin America was the place where both direct and hybrid US led regime change conflicts were the most numerous and most frequent. Under the Trump administration, Washington’s mentality towards Latin America has openly returned to one of an overt projection of power. This contrasts sharply with the so-called Pink Tide era of the 1990s and early 2000s when leftist governments throughout Latin America rose to democratic power while the US was too busy waging wars elsewhere to adopt its traditional interventionist position that defined the previous 100 years of Washington’s relations with its Spanish and Portuguese speaking neighbours.
The Trump administration’s political meddling in Nicaragua which forced Ronald Reagan’s old rival Daniel Ortega to effectively back down in the face of US pressure is a further example of the re-assertive position that the Trump White House is taking in Latin America. This combined with frequent outbursts by Trump and his more hawkish colleagues against both Venezuela and Cuba along with the still technically unsolved assassination attempt on Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro in August of this year makes it clear that when it comes to Caracas, the US senses weakness and has indicated that it may pounce militarily after further waves of sanctions.
Beyond the US having a longtime domineering neo-imperial position in Latin America, China is geopolitically more remote from Latin America than from any other part of the world. While the last decade has seen unprecedented levels of Sino-Latin American connectivity, the US retains much of its hegemonic power over Latin America in spite of some major Chinese inroads in recent years.
Because of this, Venezuela is even more vulnerable to regime change than Myanmar. Even though the US is using sanctions to inflict economic damage on Naypyidaw in an attempt to foment a rift between China and its partners in the wider Ummah (global community of Muslims), direct US military intervention in Myanmar remains a remote possibility due to the manifold nature of the country’s decades long civil conflicts. By contrast, in Venezuela, the US continues to fund a well organised, highly vocal and generally united pro-Washington “opposition” that could theoretically be easily installed in power after a regime change intervention against the country’s legitimate government.
Because of this, China’s major test in resisting a US led regime change in a partner nation will not be in Myanmar but in Venezuela. Furthermore, compared to Russia’s geographic distance vis-a-vis Syria, China would have a much bigger challenge should it attempt to do for the Venezuela government what Russia has done for Syria in the face of a US led attempted regime change. Although China, like Russia is not likely to ever directly confront the US military in any state, should the US attempt to foment regime change in Venezuela by proxy, China would be faced with a major question of whether to send arms, cash and/or military advisers to the country in order to defend not only a partner nation but a country whose oil is important to the Chinese market.
Circumstance has therefore placed China in a deeply precarious position vis-a-vis the United States in Venezuela because at this stage, just as it is with the trade war, every Chinese or US action will be met with an equal and opposite reaction by the other superpower. Therefore, the more China and Venezuela discuss the South American nation’s participation in the One Belt–One Road initiative, the more the US will begin fuelling money and offering strategic advice to the Venezuelan “opposition”, all the while piling on more sanctions. Likewise, if China were to send military advisers to safeguard Venezuela’s oil at the request of President Maduro, this legal option could be meet with an increased US naval presence in the waters surrounding Venezuela in addition to ever more ultimatums regarding regime change in Caracas.
Realistically, the key for China is to help Caracas to better manage its economy and in so doing reduce the chances of the US backed “opposition” of being able to foment chaos among a despondent population unhappy with the current state of economic affairs in the country, but one that nevertheless remain largely unattractive to pro-Washington neo-liberal factions.
Beyond this, China is in a situation where it is damned if it does and damned if it doesn’t in respect of using traditional ‘hard power’ methods to secure Venezuela’s safety. If China helps Venezuela “too much”, the US would use this as an excuse to put even more tariffs and possibly sanctions on Beijing, something which China is prepared for in the long term but certainly neither needs nor wants at any point and especially not in the short term. By contrast, if China effectively stands down in the face a a full-scale US hybrid war on Venezuela, China’s partners in other parts of the globe will begin to question the efficacy of Chinese investment if it is not safeguarded against mutual enemies by the strength of the People’s Liberation Army. Of course this narrative would be proffered by those feigning ignorance regarding the fact that while China could theoretically easily safeguard the assets of a partner nation in Asia or Africa, such things are logistically far more difficult in the Americas.
For the time being, the best strategy for China is to do all that it can to revive Venezuela’s economy while privately preparing the country to protect its sovereignty by following Deng Xiaoping’s maxim of “keeping a low profile” while simultaneously following the advice of Sun Tzu who stated,
“The whole secret lies in confusing the enemy, so that he cannot fathom our real intent”.
This balancing act will not be easy but if China is able to claim justifiable credit in using its economic weight to safeguard Venezuela from foreign meddling or hybrid war, Beijing will ultimately come out looking all the better for it in the eyes of its partners throughout the developing world.