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Chavez's Health and Implications for Chinese Investment

Released on 2012-04-26 00:00 GMT

Email-ID 1334309
Date 2011-06-29 23:10:49
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Chavez's Health and Implications for Chinese Investment

June 29, 2011 | 1904 GMT
Chavez's Health and Implications for Chinese Investment
MINORU IWASAKI-Pool/Getty Images
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez (L) and Chinese President Hu Jintao

The absence of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez due to health reasons
has caused uncertainty about Venezuela's future, and this is cause for
concern in China. China has made significant financial investments in
and commitments to Venezuela, from which Venezuela has benefited
greatly. China risks losing billions of dollars if Venezuela
destabilizes, and in the long term, it fears losing the standing
preferential relationship with Caracas if the government changes and
Venezuela begins to look elsewhere for technical expertise to accompany


Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez appeared on Venezuelan television June
29 in a recording that was reportedly made the morning of June 28. It is
unclear from the video exactly how healthy the South American leader is
after he was hospitalized in Cuba on June 10, undergoing abdominal
surgery apparently related to prostate cancer. Though he reportedly
intends to return to Caracas by July 5 for the country's independence
day and bicentennial celebration, it is not yet clear that he will be
well enough to do so. With Chavez having been in a Cuban hospital for
nearly three weeks, Venezuela has been rife with rumors about his
sickness, and a power struggle among his inner circle has been under

There are many players with a stake in the Venezuelan regime, but one of
the most important in the past several years has been China, which could
be affected greatly by a transition in Venezuela's government. China
does not stand to lose much in the short term and hopes to continue
investing in Venezuela, but a transition away from Chavez and Caracas'
need for technical expertise to accompany investment could threaten
China's preferential standing with Venezuela.

Chinese Interests in Venezuela

China has not commented officially on Chavez's illness, but China has
become increasingly invested in Venezuela and has built a unique
relationship with the Venezuelan government. Although the exact numbers
have been difficult to confirm, since 2005, China has made hard asset
investments and loans as well as commitments for further loan and
investments to Venezuela worth about $49.5 billion. Some of the loans
have reportedly been paid back in oil, and about $10 billion worth of
loans will reportedly be delivered in yuan, which China can print at
will and is only accepted as currency by the Chinese government and
firms. The terms on the financing vary, but China has been careful to
ensure that it has taken a strong role in how the money is spent, with
joint decision-making on the projects and a commitment to hiring Chinese
firms written into the agreements. Of the total amount that has been
invested and discussed, we estimate conservatively that China could be
exposed to losses of around $14 billion if Venezuela reneged on its

[IMG] China's interest in Venezuela is multifaceted. In the first place,
Venezuela has one of the largest energy reserves in the world, with
proven oil reserves of 211 billion barrels and 179 trillion cubic feet
of proven natural gas reserves. Much of this oil is so thick it requires
special processing before it can be shipped to a refinery. By
establishing a relationship with Venezuela, China not only has a chance
to learn some of the processing techniques for heavy, sour crude oil,
which is an increasing portion of the global oil mix, but it also is
able to actually invest in oil production that supplies its own
consumption market. Both of these interests are being addressed in a
pending deal to build a refinery with a capacity of 400,000 barrels per
day in China*s Guangdong province.

Chavez's Health and Implications for Chinese Investment
(click here to enlarge image)

Second, China has a global outward investment strategy that has targeted
Venezuela, among others, for its natural resources and opportunities for
Chinese business. This strategy allows China to invest its massive cash
surpluses in hard assets worldwide and helps it handle domestic money
growth. It also expands markets for Chinese exporters and state
infrastructure and industry. China has long invested in several
extremely risky countries and governments at variance with the United
States or the West, or otherwise viewed as at high risk of instability,
including North Korea, Myanmar, Iran, Sudan, Angola and Venezuela.
Having arrived late in the global race for resources and markets, China
has seized opportunities shunned by the West, and with its large cash
reserves and willingness to offer financing without political
requirements, it has attracted interest from these regimes.

Investment in Unstable Countries

China generally believes it can secure its investments by cultivating
relations across these countries' regimes and political elite, though it
is well aware that losses could result when it chooses to invest in
unstable countries. Outside of Venezuela, China has a number of
investments worth hundreds of billions of dollars in unstable countries.
STRATFOR sources suggest that China may have more than $30 billion at
risk in Libya, where it has recently begun negotiating with the rebels
to try to ensure that interests established under the regime of leader
Moammar Gadhafi will be protected under any potential Libyan government
ruled by the rebels. Chavez's illness and the instability in Libya (as
well as the broader Middle East and Africa) reveal a certain degree of
strategic weakness inherent in investing in potentially volatile
emerging markets, especially where China's main advantage is the
regime's estrangement from China's competitors in the West. The
potential loss of tens of billions of dollars worth of investment into
these economies has prompted a reconsideration of such risks, but
STRATFOR sources suggest that Chinese bank regulators' latest attempts
to pull back on foreign investments and loans have been rebuffed by the
Chinese national banks.

For Venezuela, the relationship with China has been important for both
financial and political reasons. Since the 2002 coup attempt against
Chavez - during which the United States was quick to acknowledge the
military leaders that briefly took power - Venezuela has been working to
isolate itself from the United States by seeking alternative allies and
diversifying its oil export markets. As the most aggressive global
lender, particularly in the wake of the financial crisis when lending
was nearly nonexistent, and a huge consumer of oil, China has become a
natural partner for Venezuela. Presiding over an increasingly unstable
economy, Chavez has needed to increase borrowing to cover expenditures
and debts on a number of fronts. From a severe national housing shortage
to a deteriorating electricity system and an oil sector suffering from
severe mismanagement and underinvestment, Chavez has needed the Chinese
as a political backer, but most important, as a financial backer. This
need has meant that China has enjoyed a great deal of leverage over
Venezuela and made it easy for China to get the terms it wanted on the
loans and investments it made.

Implications of Chavez's Illness

The Venezuelan government is highly personalized, and a great deal in
Venezuelan politics relies on the personal preferences of Chavez. There
are no other leaders who are positioned to take control in a scenario
where Chavez is incapacitated or a change in government becomes a
necessity. China worries that if something were to happen to Chavez,
their preferential treatment and access to investments and financing
could dissipate. This concern to extend the relationship beyond the
confines of a personal relationship with Chavez can be seen in the
successful push that got the terms of Chinese loans written into
Venezuelan law. The Chinese could still make deals with a new Venezuelan
government, but it would require forming relationships with a whole new
ruling elite.

In the short term, the risk posed by Chavez's current illness is that
there could be a destabilization of the government if he is not able to
return to power in the near future. This could directly threaten China's
in-country assets. However, unless the country dissolves into civil war
and outright destroys Chinese direct investments, it is unlikely that a
successor government would walk away from its debts to the world's
biggest lender. And, for China, this is a relatively small amount of
money, as its annual external investment totaled around $59 billion in
2010 alone.

The longer-term reality is that China will lose its preferential access
to Venezuelan resources. Even if Chavez*s current illness does not bring
about a change in government, a transition is in the cards at some
point, and a change in the Venezuelan government may shift the
incentives that make the current partnership with China so important. It
is Chavez*s policy of isolation from the United States combined with
China*s "no strings attached" lending policy that makes China a perfect
partner for the moment.

However, there are opportunity costs accruing to Venezuela as a result
of its commitments to China. Venezuela's oil industry is suffering from
a profound lack of technical expertise to accompany investments, and the
Chinese simply do not have the technical ability to help revive
dwindling production.

The pressing need for Venezuela to resuscitate its oil industry with
foreign expertise will eventually necessitate a reconsideration of its
isolationist policies - and a leadership change will make this more of a
political possibility than it currently is under the Chavez
administration, as it will require a more conciliatory posture toward
the United States. For China, this will mean higher competition for
access to Venezuelan energy resources, and although no one can compete
with China's quantity of cash, it does not have the expertise Venezuela

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