The outsized ambitions and scale of the China-Venezuela political and financial relationship in the twenty-first century have meant that its failures and disappointments have been correspondingly large. This report explores how the nations came to be involved, how each side has responded to Venezuela’s extended economic and political crisis, and the implications for the future of the bilateral relationship and for China’s aspirations to be a leader and agent of international development.

Venezuela’s foreign minister, Jorge Arreaza, (left) meets with Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi in Beijing on January 16, 2020. (Ng Han Guan/AP)
Venezuela’s foreign minister, Jorge Arreaza, (left) meets with Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi in Beijing on January 16, 2020. (Ng Han Guan/AP)

Summary

  • China’s industrialization boom in the early 2000s created new opportunities for its resource-rich trade partners in Latin America and Africa. Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez, seeking new diplomatic and oil collaborations with China and Russia, was enthusiastic about advances from China.
  • Both sides miscalculated the risks and rewards of a partnership focused on oil and diplomatic ties. By the time of Chávez’s death, the relationship was already experiencing growing frictions. Rather than admit to difficulties or mistakes, Chinese and Venezuelan leaders have stubbornly stuck with the status quo.
  • China has attempted to balance low-key support for Nicolás Maduro’s government—thereby helping prolong Chavista economic and political misrule—with efforts to minimize the financial and reputational damage resulting from its long-term support for Chávez and Maduro.
  • The Venezuelan opposition has pointed to the lose-lose outcomes of the relationship while emphasizing that China still has an opportunity to make a positive contribution to Venezuelan development and peace if it changes course.
  • The Trump administration’s support for Juan Guaidó over Maduro, however, means that Venezuela will remain a key site for the rapidly expanding strategic rivalry between the United States and China.

About the Report

This report examines China’s relationship with Venezuela during the Chávez and Maduro regimes and the consequences for both countries. The report is based on more than eight years of research and interviews with government officials, businesspeople, sector analysts, and academic researchers from China, Venezuela, and the United States. It was funded by the China program at the United States Institute of Peace.

About the Author

Matt Ferchen is Head of Global China Research at the Mercator Institute for China Studies, Berlin. Previously he was a scholar with the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy and an associate professor in the Department of International Relations at Tsinghua University, both in Beijing.

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