Getting China on Board With the Transition

Beijing won’t mediate between Maduro and Guaidó, because it’s not interested in Venezuela. But it can help with recovering our democracy, if its current inaction impacts its interests.

Photo: Sofía Jaimes Barreto

On their recent article about China as a possible mediator that could unlock the Venezuelan political situation, Maryhen Jiménez Morales and Lu Xiaoyu overlooked that China has turned a blind eye towards Venezuela. Maduro’s visit to Beijing, in September 2018, lacked all the usual paraphernalia surrounding state visits. Official media completely ignored it. Government statements made no reference to the new $5 billion credit line, leading analysts to wonder whether Maduro had invented the loan. This was yet another sign that Beijing’s relationship with Venezuela is increasingly unpopular, being regarded by many in China as an extravagant waste of public resources. Back during the oil boom and the peak of Chávez’s power and regional influence, Sino-Venezuelan relations were portrayed by Chinese media as an “example” of Chinese leadership in the world. Today, the relationship resembles a hangover from years of drinking the Chávez Kool-Aid; better to leave it behind and forget it ever happened.

Morales and Lu argue that Beijing, given the “right kind of coalition,” would be willing to play a “brokerage role in Venezuela.” While China can help bring about the cese de la usurpación, Morales and Lu fail to explain why China—given its current reticence regarding Venezuela—would ever consider getting involved. 

As the situation now stands, the Venezuelan crisis is not a priority for Beijing.

As the situation now stands, the Venezuelan crisis is not a priority for Beijing. We’re a broke and isolated country on the other side of the planet marred by internal power struggles. Pleading the moral argument about solving a humanitarian crisis will do little to catch Beijing’s attention. Moreover, even if a “humanitarian coalition” including China were to be created, while it would help ease the suffering of the Venezuelan people, it would do little to break the deadlock between the caretaker presidency and the usurpers. Humanitarian aid helps alleviate the symptoms, not cure the disease. As long as there’s no political cost for Beijing’s current stand on Venezuela, they will abstain from taking any significant step to help solve the standoff. 

Morales and Lu are right to claim that we cannot rule out a Syria-like scenario where Maduro and his cronies manage to maneuver around Western sanctions and ultimately survive the international effort to push them out. They’re also right to point out that international pressure must expand beyond the frontier of Latin America and the West. The problem with their diagnosis lies in their false equivalence between the alleviation of the humanitarian crisis and bringing about a political transition in Venezuela.

The caretaker presidency should “demand new elections but also concrete proposals from the international community, including China, about how to alleviate the humanitarian crisis,” as Morales and Lu claim. Nonetheless, humanitarian aid, regardless of where it comes from, will not get Maduro to relinquish power; on the contrary, it will buy him time. The international community has provided more than $17 billion in assistance for Syrian refugees in less than ten years. The results? Syrians continue their decade-long exodus and Bashar al-Assad maintains his grip on power. The way for China to help out lies elsewhere.

Convincing Beijing

In order to lure China into the caretaker government’s orbit, Morales and Lu argue that it should “change its foreign policy to be more Chinese friendly.” They assert that “China needs sufficient signs from the opposition that its investments will be honored and that a respectful relationship is in fact possible.” 

This approach will never work. 

First, Guaidó has no leverage to negotiate with Beijing. He can promise all of Venezuela’s oil reserves and the entire Arco Minero to China and the response will be: “That all sounds great, call us when you’re in power.” Under the current situation, there’s no vital Chinese interest in Venezuela—Maduro can’t even keep oil flowing to China to repay previous loans. Promises about an uncertain future will not change that.

For China to take action, the Venezuelan crisis has to grow in dimension: it should be perceived as an obstacle for Beijing’s relationship with the region as a whole. That’s why Guaido’s best chance of bringing Beijing into the fold is by working hand-in-hand with his Latin American allies in conveying a unified regional message that questions the credibility of China’s international image and challenges its position in Venezuela. Beijing is highly sensitive about its international image and has repeatedly demonstrated that it’s willing to modify its foreign policy, if this improves how the world perceives them.

The objective is to give Beijing a compelling reason to get involved in the political discourse and be part of the solution.

This must not be confused with an attempt to alienate or blame China for the Venezuelan debacle. On the contrary, the objective is to give Beijing a compelling reason to get involved in the political discourse and be part of the solution. The main guideline to be conveyed to Chinese authorities is that we’re talking about solving a crisis of governance in the region, not about regime change. Guaidó’s foreign policy team, in tandem with other regional Foreign ministers, have to sell the Venezuelan crisis to Xi Jinping as an opportunity for China to help strengthen the Latin American system of governance and, as a consequence, gain a reputation as a stabilizing force in the region. Inaction would hence translate into a lack of leadership that will tarnish Beijing’s image and question its future projects in Latin America. Only then will China get invested and help bring about change in Venezuela.  

Chinese help will not come in the form of official recognition of the caretaker presidency. What Beijing can do is help shut down many of the back-door financial channels that Maduro uses to maintain his regime afloat. Morales and Lu forget that China has voted, on multiple occasions, in the United Nations Security Council in favor of sanctions against Iran, Libya, and North Korea and has put political pressure on other countries, including Myanmar and Sudan, two ironclad dictatorships, to cease political violence. With the right message and the right incentives, the caretaker presidency can get China to pressure Maduro behind closed doors and lay the groundwork for future relations.

At the end of their piece, Morales and Lu rightly point out that “time is the opposition’s worst enemy and the regime’s best friend.” Getting Chinese foreign policy right and bringing Beijing on board with the transition will surely hasten Maduro’s downfall.