China continues to be cautious about the political crisis in Venezuela, advocating for a peaceful resolution under the framework of the country’s constitution. By doing this, the Chinese are basically providing support for de facto President Nicolas Maduro, but their approach may change – as self-proclaimed interim President Juan Guaidò seems to be bolstering his position.

Some say China’s opposition to regime change in Venezuela is motivated by concerns about the repayment of loans it granted to the Maduro administration and that of his predecessor Hugo Chavez. The Chinese may reasonably suspect that a new US-backed government in the Caribbean nation could decide to restructure its debt, which would lead to losses for lenders such as the Asian giant.

Like Russia, China has certainly helped prolong the life of the populist-socialist regime in Venezuela, contributing to the current economic and humanitarian catastrophe. This has raised eyebrows in Washington, to the extent that a number of observers have suggested that one of the reasons US President Donald Trump has increased pressure on the Maduro regime is to counter China’s activities in the American hemisphere.

Opposition leader Juan Guaido takes a selfie with supporters during a rally to press the army to let in US aid, in Caracas on Tuesday. Photo: AFP / Federico Parra

Jiang Shixue, a professor and director of the Center for Latin American Studies at Shanghai University, believes America has no reason to fear China’s relationship with Venezuela, saying it is not targeted against US interests in the region, particularly when it comes to economic issues.

However, he also told Asia Times that “the US loves to create enemies, so it is likely that it wants to send a signal to China, by interfering in the domestic affairs of Venezuela.”

Evan Ellis, a research professor of Latin American studies at the Strategic Studies Institute of the US Army War College, thought otherwise. He did not see US support for a Guaidò government as an anti-China move.

He noted that Guaidò, who heads the opposition-led National Assembly and is now recognized as the legal representative of the Latin American state by the US and many other governments, repeatedly expressed a willingness and desire to talk to China about the future of its investments and contractual relationships in Venezuela.

Cui Shoujun, director of the Center for Latin American Studies at Renmin University in Beijing, noted that US officials had disliked the Venezuelan regime since Chavez took power in the late 1990s. He said the China factor “might be one of the reasons for the Trump administration to accelerate its support for the Guaidò faction, but there are other significant historical and ideological factors as well.”

Investments, armored carriers

China is Venezuela’s second-largest trading partner and has channeled US$21 billion worth of investments into the country since 2005, according to China Global Investment Tracker.

Over the past decade, China has also provided Venezuela with some $65 billion in loans – outstanding debt reportedly stands at $20 billion. While China is one of the largest buyers of Venezuelan oil, much of these supplies are intended for debt repayment.

The two countries have security relations too. Significantly, China has sold VN-4 armored personnel carriers to the Maduro regime, which his national guard usually uses against protesters, Ellis said.

With such strong economic and financial links in play, it is realistic to think the Chinese government could switch sides and back the US-endorsed government of Guaidò, if the Venezuelan opposition were to gain the upper hand.

“I understand that China, as a general principle, does not like to support challenges to illegitimate leaders [even when supported by broad sections of the international community], because Beijing fears that such challenges could be made against the Chinese Communist Party as well,” Ellis said. “This reluctance led Beijing to dramatic losses in Libya in 2011, in Yemen, and also in Guyana, when its longtime friend, the People’s Progressive Party, lost power to the APNU coalition in 2015.”

The Chinese have said they are talking to all concerned parties in an attempt to favor a negotiated solution to the crisis. Furthermore, Ellis noted that they had already spoken to the Venezuelan opposition following its victory in the December 2015 elections to the National Assembly.

For Jiang, any international disputes should be solved in accordance with the United Nations Charter, which calls for non-interference in other countries’ domestic affairs. In his view, China has always respected this principle, but at the same time the Chinese leadership wishes to develop relations with any political side in Venezuela.

Cui thinks the Chinese government will approach the Guaidò side pragmatically while still engaging with the Maduro government. “It might be an opportunity for China to play a constructive role in searching for a political solution to the crisis,” he said. “China is the largest creditor and an important economic partner to Venezuela, and is willing to offer its help – along with the rest of the international community – by upholding the purpose and principles of the UN Charter.”

Interest in replacing Maduro

Ellis pointed out that, as with the replacement of Christina Fernandez de Kirchner by Mauricio Macri in Argentina, the Guaidò government would arguably be beneficial to the expansion of Chinese activities in Venezuela, not only because its consolidation would pull the country out from under the shadow of commercial and economic sanctions, and associated uncertainties and impediments to doing business, but also because it should eventually bring the return to more competent contracting and administration of the oil sector.

“China has a natural role as a contractor, as well as a provider of numerous badly needed projects to repair the long-neglected Caribbean country, from road, rail, electricity and telecommunication infrastructure, to retail products and commercial services,” he explained.

He said the situation in Venezuela was simply a lesson in how China’s desire to align itself with particular leaders who offer its companies benefits, rather than with the state itself, causes problems when those friends “run out of political legitimacy” due to corruption or other improper acts.

Ellis believes that once the Chinese see the military abandoning Maduro, and the dictator fleeing the country, they will forget about him and embrace the Guaidò government.

“But by waiting until a ‘safe’ time to act, China will lose an important opportunity to build a strong relationship with the incoming Guaidò team, as well as to help overcome tensions with the US and demonstrate that it is capable of playing a positive moral role in its relations with the region,” he insisted.

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