Ever since Guaidó announced his de jure interim presidency on January 23, Chinese diplomats have scrambled to figure out how to handle the situation. On March 22 we saw a new development: after the majority of member countries at the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB) voted to accept Venezuelan economist and Harvard professor Ricardo Hausmann as governor for Venezuela, on behalf of the legitimate government of the National Assembly, China refused to grant a visa for Hausmann to let him attend the IADB annual meeting in Chengdu. The US pressured Beijing to admit Hausmann, but China did not cede and the IADB ended up canceling the meeting.
“At the top of everyone’s mind [at the Chinese embassy and in Beijing] was the degree to which goodwill should be shown to and accepted from Guaidó,” a person involved told the South China Morning Post on condition of anonymity. Now, China’s reaction to the cancellation of the IDB’s meeting sheds some light on Beijing’s position on the matter as of this week.
The IADB’s decision to celebrate its annual meeting in Chengdu was a well-thought-out symbolic choice. This year marks the 10th anniversary of China joining the organization as well as the 60th anniversary of the IADB. Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province and China’s 4th largest city, is the main economic hub of China’s “Go West” policy—a government push to develop the country’s less developed interior provinces. More than 40 mayors from cities of Latin America and China, as well as renowned international experts, planned on attending the 5-day forum. For China, the meeting was an opportunity to work on the trilateral relationship with the US and Latin America.
Notwithstanding the significance of the event, when the IADB announced it was canceling the meeting just four days before its launch, China offered a moderate response. “China deeply regrets that the IDB decided to cancel the Chengdu annual meeting,” stated Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang. “Our cooperation with the IADB and the vast number of Latin American countries will not be disturbed, and we are fully confident that cooperation among all parties will be strengthened in the future.” China’s tactful response makes interesting reading for several reasons, not least of which is the omission of support for Maduro. Guaidó’s camp should look at it seriously.
What can be distilled from Geng’s laconic press conference is that Beijing does not have Maduro’s back. A staunch ally would have vouched for Maduro’s—now removed—representative at the IADB. Instead, according to Reuters, in an attempt to resolve the issue, China proposed that no envoy, neither Maduro’s nor Guaidó’s, attend the gathering. That’s the Chinese way of saying “we do not care who comes as long as the event takes place.” China supports only one side, its own. That is good news for Guaidó.
The way to open a dialogue with Beijing is through back channels, and the current situation with the IADB presents the perfect smoke screen. The IADB stated that it will announce the new location of the meeting within the next 30 days. A Chinese delegation will attend, including Yi Gang, China’s representative at the IADB and the country’s central bank chief. Organizing a meeting between Hausmann and Yi to talk about China’s participation in the reconstruction of Venezuela can lead to further cooperation down the line. Mr. Yi is a respected monetary policy expert in academic and policy circles both within China and abroad; China’s elite decision-makers will want to hear what he has to say when he heads back home.
China will never openly support Guaidó. Official channels are off the table. That is why it’s essential that Guaidó’s foreign policy team learns to read between the lines of China’s words and deeds and get their message across when the opportunity presents itself. China already sent a clear message that it will not stand for Maduro. It is time to send them a reply.