Venezuela and China, What It Is and What It's Not

What does China mean with its “non-interventionism” attitude, when chavismo needs allies more than ever? Simple: “We’re here for business, not politics. You’re on your own.”

Photo: Sputnik, retrieved.

China will abandon Maduro because of a simple reason: its interests are no longer being served.

What brought China and Venezuela together? You might say that no one was willing to make it as easy for China as Chavéz did, but although the terms of the cash-for-oil agreements patently favor China, it’s far from getting a bang for its buck with the current situation of Venezuela and PDVSA. A “marriage of convenience” makes sense; Venezuela holds the largest proven oil reserves on the planet and China is the world’s second largest consumer of crude. Nonetheless, the sizeable cash-for-oil loans and the numerous back-and-forth official visits suggest oil is just the tip of the iceberg.

Realpolitik will only get you so far

International politics is more than just balance of power and spheres of influence, which is why Sino-Venezuelan relations must be viewed as historically contingent. The Venezuela Chávez inherited in 1999 was not the paradise of the 70s, as Hu Jintao’s resurging China was not the penurious and isolated country ruled by Mao. Not to mention that the bipolar world of the Cold War is long gone. Foreign policy is formulated by statesmen on the basis of their own historical self-understanding and cannot be understood any other way.

China will abandon Maduro because of a simple reason: its interests are no longer being served.

Venezuela’s foreign policy under Chavéz broke with everything the country stood for prior to his arrival, including a decades-old tradition as regional partner of the United States. Fast forward to the mid-2000s, the country’s best friends were now Russia, China and Iran, basically turning Venezuela into a revisionist state that denounced the political framework of the region and sought to spearhead new institutions of its own. Between 1999 and 2017, at least 790 investments Chinese projects in Venezuela were signed, and Chinese loans to Venezuela far outstrip those offered to any other Latin American country, representing almost half of China’s entire loan portfolio to the region. The only way to comprehend the overhaul of Venezuela’s foreign policy is to dig deep into the country’s history and domestic politics. The Venezuelan state chose to break with the past, it had nothing to do with Sino-U.S. power politics.

Ideological delusions

“Anti-Americanism, socialism and political culture brought China and Venezuela together,” what a bunch of bull: for starters, China is as socialist as Venezuela is democratic. Second, China is usually wary of grand political and ideological statements from any government, especially if they have a cost in terms of efficiency—like reduced oil production—and risk aggravating relations with the United States. Third, and most importantly, China has consistently demonstrated a pragmatic approach to international relations, free from ideological stances—its break with the USSR to open up to the United States is the quintessential example. Cooperation with Chávez came despite his revolutionary rhetoric, not because of it.

All roads lead to the national interest

For China, Venezuela was an opportunity to extend Chinese economic and political influence in a region historically aligned with the United States. Venezuela was the stepping-stone towards new markets for its products, access to natural resources, and political support in international institutions. Venezuela’s expansionist foreign policy, fueled by petrodollars, was to be the perfect conduit for Chinese national interests. Domestically, the Venezuelan case was sold to a Chinese audience as a “success story” of South-South cooperation and an example of Chinese leadership, a common tactic implemented by the CCP to boost its legitimacy at home.

Cooperation with Chávez came despite his revolutionary rhetoric, not because of it.

As for Venezuela, opening up to China boils down to hard currency. Chinese cash comes with no strings attached. Do you want money to fund political campaigns? To interfere in the internal affairs of other countries? To end up in the accounts of corrupt officials? All is well as long as Chinese interests are served. Financing from the IMF or the World Bank comes with oversight, the last thing Chavéz wanted. Furthermore, Venezuela was never truly in need of cash. Ask yourself, why does an oil-exporting country, during the decade with the highest crude prices in history, need an extra 65 billion dollars? Petro-dollars and Chinese financing were the life-line of Chavéz’s autocracy and Venezuela’s expansionist foreign policy.

What now?

Venezuela’s oil output has plummeted and its economic and political influence has all but vanished, ergo, China has nothing to gain. Moreover, Venezuela is not within China’s sphere of influence, it’s not North Korea or an island in the South China Sea, where Western sanctions and U.S. “meddling” would be considered a direct challenge to its security. Standing up for Maduro is simply not worth it.

China is well aware of the crumbling situation in Venezuela, yet it will never say so publicly. It will stick to its editorial line about “non-interference” and leave the door open for a potential recognition of a new government in Caracas. They know that the only way they will get their money back is if Venezuela regains political stability.