Imagine the Unimaginable: China As a Mediator

Despite its realist calculations in geopolitics, the Asian superpower upheld civilian protection and humanitarian assistance. That could serve to break a deadlock that only favors the Maduro regime

Photo: Reuters retrieved

Six months after Juan Guaidó assumed the opposition’s leadership, all efforts haveso farfailed to deliver on the promise of a new chapter in contemporary Venezuelan politics. Now the tone on his camp is rising again, given the lack of results on all arenas, including the Norwegian mediation in Barbados: the National Assembly approved the country’s return into the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance and, despite previously rejecting the use of force to solve the ongoing crisis, the Lima Group has also rolled back on this matter by declaring that all options remain on the table. 

This is probably how Bashar al-Assad felt when the opposition gained momentum in Syria and had the back of Western powers to force him out, a few years ago. Yet, he survived. Maduro can, too. 

Let’s be clear: Syria has already touched the Caribbean in many ways.

The current deadlock will delay or even fizzle out political solutions to regime transition and pressing humanitarian crisis. For local and international actors working to bring a solution, the time has now come to reorient the strategies to avoid a full-fleshed Syrian scenario, where tensions escalate into a civil war, with the eventual armed involvement of foreign actors. 

Let’s be clear: Syria has already touched the Caribbean in many ways. Maduro lacks effective control over the national territory. Non-state actors, such as (para)military or guerrilla and gangs have the upper hand on many daily life circumstances (like who gets to queue for food on a given day.) Power cuts occur on a daily basis and hospitals and schools have collapsed. Thousands of Venezuelans have been internally displaced and over four million have fled the country, with at least two more million expected to follow in the next two years, if the situation remains unchanged. 

Can this Syria-like scenario be stopped anytime soon?

The kind of coalition the Chinese would approve

Given that immediate grand bargaining among great powers, including China, Russia, and the US, seems unrealistic, we must now re-examine the delicate preferences within these actors. Instead of seeing the crisis as a political deadlock between antagonistic camps, one side supported by the Western allies, and the other sustained by Russia, Cuba, and China, the international community should push for the creation of an international “humanitarian coalition.” 

Such an alliance would cut through the ideological divides and attract the actors with fewer interventionist preferences and more pragmatic vision, China and the European countries, to mitigate the ongoing conflict in Venezuela. 

Surprisingly, an important move in Chinese foreign policy has been largely overlooked: since March this year, China has been sending food and medical aid to Venezuela, when the superpower publicly argues for not politicizing the humanitarian assistance to the Caribbean nation. On May 27th, according to the Chinese news agency, Venezuela received the fourth batch of humanitarian aid from Beijing68 tonnes of medical supplies to counter shortages. This shipment coincided with the works of the Red Cross, granted access in March. Chinese actors welcomed this, as it represents neutrality. 

China is aware of the scale and urgency of the humanitarian crisis. More so, Beijing is, in fact, willing to adopt a multilateral approach to alleviate suffering. This is a stance worth highlighting when comparing it, for example, to Russia, who determinedly rejects a regime transition and is more skeptical of multilateral humanitarian aid. 

Such an alliance would cut through the ideological divides and attract the actors with fewer interventionist preferences and more pragmatic vision, China and the European countries, to mitigate the ongoing conflict in Venezuela. 

China’s attitude towards the humanitarian situation in Venezuela reminds us of that in Syria a few years back, when Beijing used its power at the United Nations Security Council to block all Western influence on the conflict, excepting humanitarian aid. Since 2011, China vetoed six resolutions concerning Syria at the UN Security Council, a clear contrast with the Chinese policy from 1972 to 2008, when it only used five vetoes in total. However, China abstained in the UN vote on cross-border humanitarian aid in Syria; it’s also rumored that it persuaded the Russians to abstain too on the same resolution. 

So what lessons can Venezuela draw from this? First, that being stuck in the balance of big powers, when no side is willing to back down politically, has cataclysmic socio-economic consequences. Most importantly, it shows that deadlock does not lead to regime change, but cross-cutting agreements can be reached when there is a humanitarian emergency, China included. 

Concerning Venezuela, China already vetoed the resolution calling for elections, and it’s expected to continue doing so on any US-led proposals. But that attitude could be different regarding a non-partisan, multilateral package of humanitarian aid. 

Call Beijing

This nuance opens the space for China’s brokerage role in Venezuela. As long as its assistance is required by both Venezuelan sides and is not contested by Washington, Beijing can act as an intermediary force to moderate the positions of both Russia and the US. Its pragmatic thinking will resonate with the demands from European countries to get Venezuela out of the deadlock between Maduro and Guaidó. 

To our knowledge, there have been talks between the opposition and the Chinese government. At the beginning of this year, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said they were talking to both sides. In the UNSC, China has always said that it wants a peaceful solution, and there’s enough evidence to show that the Chinese are aware of the dimension of the crisis and how Maduro won’t be capable to safeguard their assets, in spite of his political loyalty. 

This means, however, that the Venezuelan opposition needs to change its foreign policy to be more Chinese friendly. China cares about its business and not about the type of regime. Nothing prevents the Chinese from signing contracts with the governments of Chile’s Sebastián Piñera and Argentina’s Mauricio Macri, for example, two open adversaries of Maduro. 

But China needs sufficient signs from the opposition that its investments will be honored and that a respectful relationship is in fact possible.

To our knowledge, there have been talks between the opposition and the Chinese government.

If China participated more actively in helping to promote peace in Venezuela, it would allow it to continue developing its neutral position in international conflicts, consolidating its commitment to humanitarian assistance. Such a foreign policy would convey that China wants to save lives, but that it doesn’t believe in regime change as the only way of doing so. 

Through the Syrian case, the world has already observed how a not thought-through foreign policy can harm political change in a crisis-driven country. As time flies, Guaidó and his coalition should now concentrate on alleviating the suffering of the Venezuelan people. A first step to do so requires a change in their foreign policy that better balances the desirable with the feasible: It should demand new elections but also concrete proposals from the international community, including China, about how to alleviate the humanitarian crisis. 

The moment for the USGuaidó’s closest allyhas come to finally realize that the responsibility of transforming Venezuela must be shared. The Monroe doctrine is long over and they’ll need to accept that China is now a crucial player, too. 

If time continues to pass without any clear change, the population will despair further, the refugee crisis will worsen, radicals will have the upper hand and Maduro will continue comfortable in Caracas. Time is the opposition’s worst enemy and the regime’s best friend. Assad and Omar al-Bashir knew this. Maduro does too.