The Limits to Russia and China's Support of Venezuela

The Limits to Russia and China's Support of Venezuela
AP Photo/Fernando Llano
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Fear about Chinese and Russian influence in Venezuela is reaching new heights.

The Trump administration’s new national security strategy condemns China and Russia for supporting “the dictatorship in Venezuela,” and for using arms sales to exercise regional influence. Preventing China and Russia from challenging the United States’ regional dominance is high on the White House’s Latin America agenda.

These concerns are understandable, but we should avoid hysteria about Chinese and Russian meddling.

Caracas’ relationships with Moscow and Beijing are often exaggerated, including by the governments themselves. In October, for example, Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro visited Vladimir Putin in Moscow and made farfetched claims about Russia’s limitless military backing. “I am sure, even if we do not ask, we will be given even more support,” he said in the wake of President Trump’s threats of a “military option” for dealing with Venezuela.

Such statements have created a false impression of tight-knit international alliances bolstering the regime in Caracas. In truth, Maduro is increasingly isolated and as his country’s economic problems metastasize, his support from Beijing and Moscow falls.

The Trump administration has stepped up painful financial-sector sanctions against Maduro as the latter consolidates power ahead of a suspect presidential election this year. Beijing and Moscow have grudgingly offered minor economic support but repeatedly shunned the bailout Maduro desperately needs.

China’s support has declined to a yearly allowance that props up Maduro, but does not solve deep structural problems. Russia recently negotiated generous repayment terms on a $3 billion loan but issued no new financing.

Given the low probability of a Chinese or Russian bailout, regime stability in Venezuela is far shakier than it appears. Maduro is struggling to control a population that is increasingly restive about food and goods shortages. Absent an external rescue, a political transition in Venezuela remains a possibility, despite the opposition’s disarray.

Russia

Since Hugo Chávez first courted the Russian government, Moscow has been one of Venezuela’s most steadfast allies. For years, Venezuela was among the top buyers of Russian arms. Since the collapse in oil prices in 2014, Russia has provided Venezuela with economic lifelines.

The Russian aid came at a critical moment, as Maduro labored mightily but unsuccessfully to help his government and the state oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA), make timely debt payments. Still, Putin is no philanthropist.

Just as Chávez was the darling of Russia’s defense industry, Russian state-owned oil company Rosneft has been giddily scooping up Venezuelan oil assets at fire sale prices. These bargains, moreover, reflect not only Venezuela’s financial desperation, but also the absence of competition. Foreign oil companies are losing their taste for Venezuela’s idiosyncratic operating environment, including a government that habitually stiffs its partners and a state-owned oil company as corrupt as it is incompetent.

For Putin, there is the added geopolitical benefit of schadenfreude. The Russian leader no doubt takes pleasure in propping up an anti-American government on America’s doorstep.

But it is not clear that Putin is willing to go far beyond the support he has already offered. For one, in the run-up to Russia’s March presidential election, he has promised to cut spending, including by reducing Russia’s role in the Syrian civil war. Even after the election, Moscow won’t be able to afford a bailout. Russia’s economy has been sputtering since oil prices collapsed, and U.S. and European Union sanctions following Russia’s occupation of Crimea have not helped.

China

China established a strategic relationship with Venezuela in 2007, while Chávez was solidifying his socialist party’s control. Between 2007 and 2012, China poured $40 billion into Venezuela, its biggest investment in Latin America by far.

That Chinese investment, coupled with relatively high oil prices, spurred Caracas to significant spending increases, providing a major boost to Chávez’s 2012 re-election campaign. The Chinese investment was so significant -- $20 billion in 2010 alone -- that it served as a pre-emptive bailout. Even after the 2014 oil market shock sent the Venezuelan economy into a tailspin, Maduro had the means to continue servicing debt obligations.

Still, even in the heyday of Venezuela’s China romance, Chinese loans came with strings attached. Many of the deals required Venezuela to repay with oil, though Venezuela desperately needed to sell every drop of crude it extracted for hard currency. Since Maduro succeeded Chavez in April 2013, Beijing has negotiated even tougher terms and slowed its lending dramatically. From 2013 to today, Beijing has announced new investments totaling just $22 billion, and not all of that money has been disbursed. Given Venezuela’s previous borrowing from China, for every dollar Beijing has loaned in recent years, it has received oil repayments of roughly the same value.

Why the change? Unlike Moscow, China has the resources to keep Maduro afloat, but it also has a reputation to manage. China seems increasingly concerned about the moral hazard of sponsoring Maduro. In fact, the Maduro government’s economic mismanagement has created incentives for China to de-risk. In a sign of Beijing’s unhappiness with Caracas, a major Chinese oil player, Sinovensa, recently sued PDVSA to force compensation for missed payments.

Despite Beijing’s frustration with Maduro, there is a limit to the punishment China will impose. China would like to maintain a steady flow of Venezuelan oil, and Chinese oil companies continue to covet Venezuela’s petroleum reserves, regardless of the chaos aboveground. Additionally, though Venezuela’s crisis-as-status-quo reality is distressing to Chinese investors, Beijing understands that the crisis can worsen, and it is not keen to push Venezuela into total collapse.

Policy implications

At first glance, it may seem that an ideological kinship and shared geopolitical vision underpin the strategic relationships between Venezuela, China, and Russia. China and Venezuela preach a form of modern socialism, and all three countries are eager to promote a multipolar world.

Yet financial considerations predominate these diplomatic relationships. When Beijing and Moscow have lent Caracas a hand, they have done so largely out of economic self-interest. And given that these investments are increasingly risky, it would be a surprise if China or Russia threw good money after bad.

Overstating the likelihood of a bailout has serious implications. That common misunderstanding leads to foreign policy positions that assume Maduro’s regime will survive, deflating international efforts to compel a democratic transition and discouraging the domestic opposition from unifying and mobilizing.

If fatigue were to translate into diplomatic disengagement, it would give Maduro breathing room. Needless to say, it would be highly paradoxical if Western democracies ended up gifting Maduro a political bailout even as increasingly frugal Beijing and Moscow resist granting economic rescue.

In this context, scrutinizing the hype about China and Russia’s tightknit relationship with Venezuela is key to calibrating international pressure on the Maduro government.

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