China hosts Venezuelan leader, but denies playing in ‘U.S. backyard’

Chinese President Xi Jinping hosted Venezuelan President Nicholas Maduro in Beijing Friday, highlighting China’s growing influence in Latin America by offering new support to the embattled socialist regime in Caracas.

The two leaders held talks in the Chinese capital, where Mr. Xi agreed to push what China’s official Xinhua news service described as a “comprehensive strategic partnership to a higher level.”

China has already pumped more than $50 billion into Venezuela over the past decade through oil-for-loan agreements that have helped Beijing secure energy supplies while bolstering an anti-U.S. ally in Latin America, according to Reuters. But the flow of cash has reportedly slowed in recent years amid Maduro government demands for debt relief from Beijing as low global oil prices pushed the Venezuelan economy into free fall.

While Chinese media reports were vague Friday on whether Mr. Xi has agreed explicitly to new loans for Caracas, there were indications Beijing is eager to expand its economic ties with Venezuela — particularly in pursuit of Venezuelan oil.

“No matter what happened in Venezuela, how many difficulties it confronts, the country is an important friend as well as one of the major economic partners of China in Latin America,” said a editorial published Thursday by Global Times, a media outlet of China’s ruling Communist party that often presages Beijing’s official foreign policy positions.

Beijing will not interfere in [Venezuela‘s] internal affairs,” the editorial added. “What the two nations need is to continue the friendship between China and Venezuela, optimize and innovate their mode of economic and trade cooperation.”

Mr. Maduro, whose socialist government’s crackdown on opposition in Venezuela as drawn sharp criticism from U.S. officials in recent years, is seen to be eager to grow ties with China as a reprieve from sanctions being imposed on Caracas by Washington.

Ahead of his trip to Beijing this week, Mr. Maduro said his hope was to “improve, broaden and deepen relations with this great world power.”

The visit follows Trump administration attempts to restore struggling U.S. military alliances with other Latin American nations and to warn leaders across the region against too eagerly embracing Chinese loans.

Defense Secretary James Mattis made headlines during a mid-August visit to South America, where he touted a renewed U.S. focus on military-to-military relations with Argentina and Chile and said regional leaders should be wary of becoming too close with China.

“There is more than one way to lose sovereignty. …It can be with countries that come offering presents and loans,” the defense secretary said in reference to billions China has shelled out not only to Venezuela, but to other struggling leftist governments in the region as well.

Chinese officials have bristled at Washington’s characterization of Beijing as a predatory lender. With regard to Venezuela specifically, the Global Times editorial published Thursday pushed back against the notion that “China is playing a geopolitical game in Latin America, the so-called ‘U.S. backyard.’”

“The ChinaVenezuela relationship is a part of China’s cooperation across the world with equality and mutual benefits,” the editorial argued. “Beijing will not manipulate any nation as a tool against any other country. China does not want to become a geopolitical player. It wants to take a different path in international relations.

“The debt risk between China and Venezuela has been exaggerated,” Global Times writers added. “Venezuela has the largest oil reserves in the world and China is the largest oil importer. This provides the possibility to control their debt risk at the macro level.”

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