Beijing's Bolivarian Venture

Beijing's Bolivarian Venture

Mini Teaser: China’s growing involvement in Venezuela is a direct threat to U.S. security. Why trouble is brewing in our own backyard.

by Author(s): Gabe CollinsCarlos Ramos-Mrosovsky

With the United States preoccupied with the Middle East, another great power of the 21st century is paying close attention to Latin America. China is devoting considerable diplomatic and economic resources to strengthen its strategic energy alliance with Venezuela--a country that at present provides 20 percent of U.S. oil imports. To the apparent ignorance of Washington, a great game, set in this century and continent, is currently underway.

Chinese oil companies often act as arms of government policy. Officials in Beijing lack confidence in the free market's ability to reliably supply China with oil over the long term. They thus have few qualms about who they deal with and what inducements they offer to guarantee China's access to oil. Indeed, China has already used its veto power at the UN and has deployed thousands of troops to protect its oil interests in the Sudan, unfazed by that country's deplorable human rights record. China has adopted a similar policy in Iran, recently signing a massive deal to develop that country's Yadvaran field, while the rest of the world frets about Tehran's nuclear ambitions. Beijing has also extended a $2 billion "ultra-low-interest loan" to Angola in order to gain exploration and development rights to several potentially rich offshore oil blocks. In Nigeria, China recently agreed to make $4 billion in "infrastructure investments" in exchange for four oil exploration licenses. Such policies indicate China would be quite willing to support Chavez's "Bolivarian Revolution"--economically, politically and, perhaps, even militarily--in exchange for access to Venezuelan oil. Nearly 200 years after the Monroe Doctrine, the possibility, however remote, of a Chinese military presence on Venezuelan soil is sobering.

China and Venezuela need each other. China craves oil. It is now the world's second largest oil consumer, after the United States. To maintain its prodigious growth, China will have to import an estimated four million barrels per day by 2010--nearly twice what it currently imports. Venezuela, in turn, needs capital and technical expertise to operate its complex fields. China's oil companies offer both in increasing abundance.

Venezuela's leftward lurch under Chavez has left the country's oil industry--the source of more than half its government's revenue--in a precarious position. Venezuela's state oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA), long enjoyed an unusual reputation as an efficiently run state enterprise, thanks to its having been managed independently of politics. In 2002, however, thousands of oil workers went on strike to protest Chavez's decision to subject the company to direct political control by the Energy Ministry. Chavez, whose "revolution" was built on promises to distribute oil wealth to the country's poor, struck back harshly, firing over 18,000 "opposition sympathizers." Although a short-term political victory for Chavez, the firing crippled the company's technical staff--a body blow from which PDVSA will not soon recover.

Moreover, PDVSA's Fitch credit rating (BB-) is at least four levels lower than that of other major international oil companies, like Exxon (AAA), while falling output makes it difficult to use future production as collateral for project funding. Even though Venezuela is enjoying windfall revenues from the current oil-supply crunch, longer-term trends are ominous. Daily production is now at least 700,000 barrels lower than when Chavez came to power in 1999. The country is presently unable to meet its OPEC quota of 3.165 million barrels per day, even though it still holds more than seventy billion barrels in stated reserves. The problem is that Venezuela's thick oil, often as viscous as tar, is difficult to produce. While all oilfields require investment in new drilling to replace reserves and maintain production, this is particularly true in Venezuela. Most Venezuelan wells must be actively pumped to squeeze out an average of 150 barrels per day. By comparison, Saudi wells typically flow at around 5,700 barrels per day. Venezuelan oil wells also deplete at an average rate of 25 percent per year, demanding constant investment in new drilling to maintain, let alone increase, production.

In 1998, one year before Chavez's election, oil prices averaged $14 per barrel and an average of 82 rigs were drilling new wells at any given time. In 2005, the last year for which comprehensive data is available, oil prices were four times higher, but Venezuela had less than sixty rigs drilling new wells at any given time. Exploration and production should have risen to keep up with growing demand, but given Chavez's policies, investors have been too nervous to respond to market incentives.

Indeed, Venezuela's revolutionary upheaval is driving away the Western oil companies that are PDVSA's traditional partners. Over the past eight years, Chavez has steadily denounced international capitalism, warned of imminent American invasion and threatened to block oil exports to the United States. Foreign oil companies are being charged "back taxes" and an increase in royalty demands, backed by the threat of expropriation, has particularly chilled investors. In April 2006, PDVSA seized oil fields run by ENI of Italy and Total of France, and took over five others that were "voluntarily" relinquished by ExxonMobil, Repsol of Spain, Statoil of Norway and other operators. Indeed, ExxonMobil, the world's largest energy company by market capitalization, has announced its plans to leave Venezuela altogether.

Attacking Western oil companies may make political sense, but Chavez's policies have hamstrung Venezuela's oil industry. Meanwhile, Venezuela's population is growing by more than 335,000 mouths each year. As the oil pie continues to shrink, it will have to be cut into ever-smaller slices. Without a new energy partner, Chavez's revolution will go broke.

Enter China

China has already begun to pick up the slack. Within the next decade, Venezuela hopes to supply as much as 20 percent of China's oil and both sides are working to build the necessary infrastructure. The China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) has been given the rights to operate 15 fields in eastern Venezuela (which could yield one billion barrels of oil), to participate in the development of the 200-billion-barrel Orinoco Belt, and is already receiving 160,000 barrels of oil and refined products per month from Venezuela. Meanwhile, Sinopec, another Chinese government-owned company, is pursuing a wide range of petrochemical joint ventures in Venezuela, including a large fertilizer plant in Zulia state, a major petrochemicals facility in gas-rich Sucre state, and a substantial stake in the giant Paraguana refining complex, Venezuela's main source of gasoline exports.

Venezuela has long sought alternative markets for its oil exports. Historically, nearly all the refineries able to process its heavy sour crude have been located on the U.S. Gulf Coast. This is set to change dramatically. China is feverishly working to expand its sour crude refining capacity, which will enable it to take much more Venezuelan oil. PDVSA and CNPC are jointly surveying a field in the Orinoco Basin estimated to hold another twenty billion barrels of heavy oil, which they plan to develop in conjunction with a new refinery in eastern China. At the same time, Venezuela and China are considering a pipeline to an export terminal on Colombia's Pacific coast, and China is rapidly building a state-owned tanker fleet that can transport oil across the Pacific. China may also take advantage of an existing pipeline across the Isthmus of Panama, which would allow China-bound supertankers (too large for the Panama Canal) to avoid a lengthy voyage around Cape Horn. If these projects succeed, Venezuela will finally have an alternative market to the United States.

There are signs that Caracas and Beijing have already begun to develop a geopolitical partnership that goes far beyond buying and selling oil. China has agreed to build a telecommunications satellite for Venezuela, naming it the "Simon Bolivar." In August 2005, China sold Venezuela three long-range surveillance radars and high-level Chinese military delegations have paid annual visits to Caracas since the late 1990s. On the broader political front, the last few years have brought a flurry of state meetings between Chavez and the Chinese leadership. During a 2004 visit to Beijing, Chavez declared that "if Mao Zedong and Bolivar had known each other they would have been good friends."

Gaming the Caribbean

Chinese dependence on Venezuelan oil would end the United States's status, dating back at least to the end of the Cold War, as the only great power with significant interests in the Caribbean basin. China's presence in Venezuela may similarly work to insulate Chavez's government from U.S. pressure. Besides threatening U.S. oil supplies, Chavez has openly worked to build an anti-U.S. "bloc" in South America (what Harlan Ullman in the Spring issue of The National Interest labeled the "axisito of evil") by supporting radical candidates in neighboring countries such as Evo Morales, the new President of Bolivia, Peruvian leftist Ollanta Humala, and Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega. He has acted as a spoiler at regional trade summits and currently provides subsidized oil to as many as 13 countries. Chavez is also likely funneling aid to leftist terrorists in Colombia. Representatives of Colombia's FARC terrorist group have addressed Venezuela's National Assembly and Colombian forces have seized FARC weapons bearing Venezuelan military markings. Colombian officials have also accused Venezuelan aircraft of entering their airspace in support of FARC units.

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