Venezuela’s Road to Disaster Is Littered With Chinese Cash

Venezuela’s Road to Disaster Is Littered With Chinese Cash, by Christopher Balding.

Venezuela’s ruinous state has more to do with China than one might think — specifically, with Chinese President Xi Jinping’s plan for expanding China’s global influence through financial diplomacy. …

Within a few years of Chávez assuming power in 1999, China, seeing in the new leader an ideological ally, began increasing lending to Venezuela. …

The driving motivation of Chinese investment and lending since 2000 has been an obsession with opening up new export markets and securing access to natural resources. China’s interests in gaining friends in the Western Hemisphere while securing access to oil overlapped with Venezuela’s interest in diversifying its customer base away from the United States. But that overlap of interests doesn’t mean China has ever offered any sort of discount on its loans. China lent at exorbitant rates to Venezuela. Now, China refuses to renegotiate those debts, even as the South American country’s economy and oil industry crater.

From 2007 to 2014, China lent Venezuela $63 billion — 53 percent of all its lending to Latin America during this time. There was an important catch to this largesse; to guarantee repayment, Beijing insisted on being repaid in oil. With most lending agreed to when oil hovered at more than $100 a barrel, as it did for most of 2007-2014, it seemed a good deal for both sides. However, when oil dropped to close to $30 a barrel in January 2016, this caused Venezuela’s price tag for serving its debt to explode. To repay Beijing today, Venezuela must now ship two barrels of oil for every one it originally agreed to.

If Venezuela collapses and Maduro departs unceremoniously, China faces a large risk of diplomatic and financial blowback. Opposition politicians are well aware that China propped up the ruinous Maduro rule. A new Venezuelan government could well refuse to honor the Maduro-era obligations entirely and look to Washington for support instead.

But a Venezuelan default could have consequences far beyond Caracas and Beijing. As part of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China is planning to extend the same kind of deal it made with Venezuela to many more countries around the world. By leveraging its financial strength and expertise in infrastructure, China saw an opportunity to push its influence farther afield, winning friends and securing assets at the same time. …

Beijing likes to cite the Marshall Plan when talking about the [Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)], but its deals are far more shrewd and self-serving. The BRI scheme isn’t offering concessionary lending or international aid but market-based lending rates with high-interest loans. The borrower countries then have to use Chinese firms, inputs, and workers to build out their railways and ports. China is making the loans not out of a long-sighted vision of a better global order, as its boosters like to claim, but from a calculation of the financial incentives it needs to keep its own over-indebted firms afloat and their workers working. …

There’s no surer way for China to lose goodwill worldwide than to provide large amounts of ruinous lending that pushes developing countries to financial ruin. Sri Lanka has seen widespread protests and riots over Chinese debt. Meanwhile, Beijing has been leaning on the Venezuelan opposition not to default on the existing debts. All this is already having reputational costs for China. Having witnessed the consequences of Beijing’s lending in Venezuela, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan, other potential borrowers seem to have cooled on the possibility of borrowing from Beijing — or at least to be more discerning of the risks.

hat-tip Philip Barton