China, Venezuela Defense Deals May Be on Horizon
By Wendell Minnick
TAIPEI — The late-September visit of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez to China has raised the prospect of an agreement that would allow China’s military to use Venezuelan ports and airbases.
This would be the latest overture by Chávez to a nation seen as a potential U.S. enemy, a list that includes China, Cuba, Iran and Russia. In 2004 and 2005, Chávez began reducing U.S. weapon buys and cooperation and turned instead to China and Russia for arms and training.
Chávez described himself as a “Maoist” during his recent trip to China, his fifth. During the visit, China agreed to invest more in Venezuela’s oil industry and deliver 24 Hongdu K-8 trainers in 2009.
China has been pitching its Harbin Z-9 helicopter and the Chengdu J-10 Vigorous Dragon and Chengdu FC-1 Fierce Dragon fighters to Venezuela, based on Chinese-language news reports out of China.
In May 2006, the U.S. State Department established an arms embargo against Venezuela, which has since managed to buy arms only from China, Iran and Russia. Attempts to procure arms from France and Israel have been unsuccessful.
Venezuela has since suggested that it might sell its aging F-16s to Iran. U.S. officials have also worried that the F-16s might be provided to China, which could use them to gain intelligence about Taiwan’s F-16s.
Venezuela’s aging aircraft include 22 F16s, 16 French Mirage 50s and around 20 Canadian-built F-5 fighters; about half of these are believed to be grounded by a lack of spare parts.
In 2006, Venezuela turned to Russia for an order of 24 Sukhoi Su-30MK2 fighters, 53 Mil Mi-17V5 transport, Mi-26T and Mi-35M2 helicopters, and four Kazan Ansat light utility helicopters. The country has plans to procure Russian Ilyushin Il-76 cargo aircraft and Il-78 aerial refueling aircraft.
Few see a threat to U.S. interests in the growing military relationship between China and Venezuela.
“Chávez is obviously anxious to tweak and needle the U.S. as much as he can, especially for the remainder of time Bush is in office,” said Michael Shifter, vice president for policy and director of the Andean program at the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue.
Shifter said China will likely move cautiously.
“The last thing China wants to do is to antagonize or alienate the U.S. by getting too close to Venezuela, a U.S. adversary,” he said. “Oil deals are one thing, and even training programs, which are largely symbolic, but anything that the U.S. defense community would see as threatening might have ramifications that the Chinese would want to avoid. I doubt that whatever agreement is reached in Beijing will end up having real strategic significance for the U.S.” Any sort of announcement of a “strategic partnership” is unlikely to be substantive.
“Chinese love to pronounce these with just about everyone, but they are not ‘strategic’ in the classic sense of the term,” said Ralph Cossa, president of the Pacific Forum at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Yet he said such an agreement “would have powerful symbolic influence.”
“The one big risk for the Chinese is the temptation it will provide for the U.S. [presidential] candidates to overreact and say things about Chinese encroachment, China threat, etc., thus setting a potentially negative tone regarding U.S.-China relations which has thus far generally been avoided in the campaign, other than the outsourcing issue,” Cossa said.
Michael Yahuda, a professor at the London School of Economics, saw the deal as broadly significant.
“Venezuela is not only a source for oil, but it has also become an important player in Latin American politics as a fomenter of anti-American radicalism,” Yahuda said.
“It fits in neatly to China’s omni-directional diplomacy, enabling the Chinese to have good relations with all sides in Latin America, while also showing that China is not leaning towards America despite its refusal to side with Russia over Georgia.”
“Bottom line is: Chávez has more to gain politically and emotionally from jabbing a stick in Washington’s eye than [Chinese President] Hu Jintao does,” Cossa said. “Before the Chinese play along for the mere fun of it and give him too much of a bully pulpit, Beijing should ask itself if this is really a good time to [anger] Washington, in the middle of a presidential campaign, etc.”