Despite his gushing compliments this week, Beijing has been careful to keep Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez at a distance as it tries not to jeopardize its relations with Washington, analysts say.
On Thursday evening at the end of a 48-hour visit to Beijing, Latin America’s leftwing leader-in-chief was at pains to underline the strong links between his oil-producing country and the world’s third-largest economy.
“Relations between China and Venezuela are strengthening,” Chavez said.
“We have established committees to continue this work, to increase Chinese investment in Venezuela,” above and beyond US$12 billion, said Chavez, who 24 hours earlier declared that “the world’s center of gravity had shifted to Beijing.”
Since Chavez came to power a decade ago, relations between Venezuela and China have been predicated on oil, professor Gonzalo Paz of George Washington University in the US said.
“It is now a more comprehensive relationship, involving telecommunications, satellites, the construction of railways and the development of agricultural irrigation systems, but still at the heart of it lies oil,” he said.
As a growing superpower, China needs to secure more oil for its burgeoning economy from more diverse places, and Venezuela needs to ween itself off dependence on the US market.
It is here that the interests of the two countries intersect. Added to that, both share a desire to see a multi, rather than unipolar world order.
But experts say Beijing is wary of pushing this too far for fear that could endanger its relations with Washington.
“China as an emerging power plays it both ways ... nice-nice with [US President Barack] Obama and then nice-nice with South [America]. Great position to occupy,” said Riordan Roett, a Latin America specialist at Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins University.
“Beijing knows it is the next superpower. Why bother with Hugo Chavez? Because he is there and it keeps Washington on edge a little bit without real policy implications,” he said.
For Roett, the changed political landscape in the US may go some way to explaining China’s reluctance to get too close to Chavez.
“Beijing, especially after the Obama election, realizes a new chapter is probably opening in US-China relations. Why jeopardize it with more powerful relations with Hugo Chavez?” he said.
China knows it has to be careful not to do the same as the Russians when they carried out joint naval exercises last year with Venezuela in the Caribbean — traditionally considered the US’ backyard.
“President Chavez would like a more strategic relationship with China,” Paz said. “But Venezuelan hopes are always higher than those of China.”