Over the past few weeks, tensions between Venezuela and Guyana have nearly boiled over. On December 3, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro carried out a national “consultative referendum” for the public to decide whether the Esequibo region, a disputed territory administered by Guyana but claimed by Venezuela, should be integrated into the country. Esequibo makes up about two-thirds of Guyana’s territory, and is rich in extractive resources, including gold, diamonds, oil, and natural gas.
Two days prior, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) barred Venezuela from taking any action on the Esequibo. But the Maduro government went ahead with the referendum, which, with very low turnout, came down in favor of a Venezuelan Esequibo. Maduro has already made moves to annex the territory.
Maduro framed this as a victory for the Venezuelan people, and continues to drum up support for annexation, which most analysts say is purely meant as a test for the 2024 election, and as a way to see how geopolitical actors might respond to revisionist acts by the Maduro government.
Unsurprisingly, Guyana has strongly opposed the referendum and any attempts to annex the Esequibo, which foreign nations have taken a range of positions toward the Maduro government’s move. Brazil has mobilized troops to protect its shared border with both countries, while the U.S. and its allies have been mostly silent after normalizing ties with Maduro.
But, what does China think about all of this? After all, China is an important partner to both Venezuela and Guyana.
On December 6, the Chinese government said that it remains “good friends” with the two nations.
In the case of Venezuela, it has fully supported Maduro’s disputed claim to the presidency and has supplied financial and security support to this end. The two countries have a joint space program, a mutual “strategic development partnership,” and Venezuela is part of the Belt and Road Initiative, while being one of the countries applying to join the BRICS. China is also one of the major buyers of Venezuelan natural resources, including oil, gas, and gold, and has lent $150 billion to Venezuela since 2010. There are over 500,000 Chinese citizens in Venezuela.
In the case of Guyana, China has quickly expanded its presence in the country, and is poised to become the country’s largest trading partner in the coming years. China is a major importer of Guyanese energy and mining products, and various Chinese companies operate in the country, including in the Esequibo. The number of bilateral visits has also increased recently, with the two countries announcing a strategic partnership this year. Since Guyana joined the BRI in 2018, China has also poured vast sums into the country, with the aim of building up its infrastructure and services. On top of this, Guyana’s first president, Arthur Chung, was of Chinese origin, and some in Guyana’s political and economic high-class have Chinese backgrounds.
Given these interests, how is China likely to respond to the current situation? The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs has already issued a statement urging calm and supporting a peaceful resolution to the border dispute. “China has always respected the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries,” said Wang Wenbin, the Foreign Affairs spokesperson, as reported by Agence France-Presse. He added that China “favors stability, cooperation, and development in Latin America and the Caribbean.”
Chinese state media is also reporting on the issue as a “territorial dispute,” rather than as an assertion of sovereignty by Venezuela over the territory of a foreign nation, like some Russian media have also done. Unlike in other geopolitical crises involving an ally (Guyana) and adversary (Venezuela) of the West, the coverage in China has been surprisingly neutral. As with the position of the Chinese government, the coverage has so far been descriptive rather than normative.
The Chinese media’s reporting, dictated by the Chinese Communist Party itself, reflects China’s desire to appear neutral, and to rally the public behind such a neutral stance. In Chinese state coverage, both Venezuelan and Guyana’s claims are outlined, with China even mentioning the ICJ decision and Guyana’s denunciations of the Esequibo referendum.
U.S. and Brazilian condemnations are also included in the coverage, with a vaguely supportive tone encouraging mediation and dialogue. Also telling is that China’s position on the referendum is absent from all coverage, and some outlets like Xinhua and People’s Daily have no recent articles on the issue.
China’s neutral response represents a clever balancing act of its different interests in the two countries, as a key political, economic, and security ally. Under its various public programs like the BRICS, space program, monetary lending, and the BRI, China wants to increase its influence in a region previously dominated by U.S. and regional interests, but wants to do so without alienating any of its partners or damaging its geopolitical position.
As mentioned, Chinese companies are reportedly operating in the Esequibo, mostly in the energy and mining sectors, and want to maintain these partnerships. To ensure this, the Chinese government has attempted to maintain diplomatic support and ties with both countries, in case of a military conflict or even a takeover by Venezuela or another country.
China is deeply interested in Esequibo’s natural resources, and does not want to let geopolitical quarrels jeopardize its interests. In this way, China is demonstrating its nationalistic approach to regional politics, where material interests take precedent over ideological and moral claims. In its international positioning, China has time and again shown that its national interest – its material interest, specifically – matters most, while norms and values take a backseat. The Esequibo is simply another case of China’s nationalistic foreign policy in action.