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Commentary

The Chinese Technocrats and the Venezuelan Caudillo


     
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For decades globalization has been the official policy of Chinese leaders, though the content has changed radically. Prior to his death in 1976, Mao Zedong peddled global revolution. Since Deng Xiaoping took over in the late 1970s, China's goals have become domestic stability and systematic economic development. Foreign relations are mostly low-key and designed to promote domestic objectives.

China is unfailingly pragmatic in seeking foreign energy supplies to fuel its market-oriented growth. Beijing tries to develop ties to anyone with oil, from the American Unocal through Saudi Arabia and Oman to such oil-rich pariah states as Iran and Sudan. Some would include Venezuela among the latter group.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez Frías is Fidel Castro Ruz’s designated successor for the 21st century. He is one of the most colorful caudillos ever in a Hemisphere long famous for its strong and resourceful, rather than brilliant or progressive, leaders. He is an ideologue characterized by his bumptious "anti-imperialism" and manipulation of national and continental influence and power.

Chavez thrives today because he is the impassioned spokesman for the current Latin wave of "anti-Americanism" and because for now Venezuela is awash in oil money that he spends on domestic and hemispheric programs to aid and court the poor and the powerful. While China is building a diversified domestic economic system, Chavez, like most Latin caudillos, divides out existing spoils rather than creating opportunities and institutions for a balanced and productive, post-oil-boom future.

China has learned the hard way how "revolutionary socialism" can destroy a country, thus Beijing is not drawn to Chavez because of his spouting "socialism," but rather in spite of it. In order to grow at home, China must have secure trade in a reasonably stable world. It is not in Beijing's interest to have the Western Hemisphere seriously unsettled by anti-American chaos.

Indeed, China would undoubtedly prefer a more restrained and practical ally in Caracas, but it works with what it gets. Its growing ties to Venezuela fall into its broad domestic and foreign policy framework. Venezuela has the largest oil reserves outside the Middle East, is the world's fifth largest petroleum exporter and is a major supplier of oil to the United States. Ask Chinese leaders why they court Chavez and they will say something like, "It's the oil, stupid. If we can work out the details, we want some of it too."

The details will take considerable work, for China has no refineries that can handle the thick Venezuelan crude. Also, while one distinct advantage of Venezuelan oil for China is that it would not have to pass through the treacherous Strait of Malacca, as most other Chinese oil imports do, with no Pacific ports, transportation routes from Venezuela are torturous. Venezuela has announced a seven-year program to expand its number of tankers from 21 to 58, but very large crude carriers can't transit the nearby Panama Canal. Colombian President Alvaro Uribe and Chavez have agreed to construct a pipeline to a Colombian Pacific port. And a pipeline may also be laid in Middle America.

Even so, the Chinese ambassador in Caracas said last August that, "the natural markets for Venezuelan oil are North and South America." In these and other comments, he seemed to imply that China is not yet convinced of Venezuelan seriousness and competence in such a vast project and that China does not wish to be used as a battering ram in Chavez's fights with Washington.

Still the U.S. is concerned that Chavez might follow through on his periodic threats to cut off oil sales to the States in favor of China. By December 2005, Venezuela exported 140,000 barrels per day of crude to China, all reportedly used for asphalt. Chavez government spokesmen sometimes say they hope in time to fill 15-20 percent of China's oil import needs.

Some observers see more sinister plots afoot. For example, Venezuela has received radar equipment and is acquiring a communications satellite from China. But China is not masterminding nor even encouraging Chavez, who buys arms from Russia and other military and high-tech goods from anyone who will sell. His mission is a “socialist, anti-imperialist revolution” and to that end he is practical and will deal with anyone who has what he wants.

The bottom line, as former Venezuelan UN Ambassador (2001-2004) Milos Alcalay said in an interview, is that Chavez is highly ideological in his almost single-minded attacks on Washington, while China operates from a practical, non-ideological perspective. One might opine that as their investments rise, Chinese leaders will become increasingly intolerant of ideology which is so often at odds with competence and efficiency. They may even stamp their feet in frustration. For some “revolutionary” Latin Americans the image of the “Ugly American” may soon be matched by that of the “Ugly Chinese.”


William Ratliff is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and a Research Fellow and former Curator of the Americas Collection at the Hoover Institution. He travels frequently in China and Asia. His latest book is Vietnam Rising: Culture and Change in Asia’s Tiger Cub.






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