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U.S. Military Wary of China’s Foothold in Venezuela

The head of U.S. Southern Command says Beijing is using disinformation and debt diplomacy to dig in as Maduro clings to power.

Commander of U.S. Southern Command Craig Faller, testifies during a U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington on Feb. 7. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)
Commander of U.S. Southern Command Craig Faller, testifies during a U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington on Feb. 7. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

As U.S. President Donald Trump’s national security team mulls a military intervention to oust Venezuela’s strongman president, Nicolás Maduro, the Pentagon is watching China’s commercial and financial creep in the crisis-gripped nation with growing alarm.

In an interview with Foreign Policy, Adm. Craig Faller, the four-star military officer who heads U.S. Southern Command, pointed to a Chinese disinformation campaign designed to blame the United States for the blackouts that devastated Venezuela in recent weeks.

Maduro, whose government is backed by China, Russia, and Cuba, has himself publicly accused the U.S. Defense Department of causing the blackouts. Following the power failures, Beijing offered to help the Venezuelan government restore its grid.

“China came out publicly, a state spokesman, implying the blackouts were attributable to U.S. cyberattacks,” Faller said during a recent trip to Washington, D.C. “That is just such a blatant lie. The blackouts are attributed to Maduro’s inept leadership, corruption, inattention to his people, and lack of concern for any humanity.”

The Pentagon is worried about China in other arenas as well. In the Pacific, China is building up its military capability, intimidating its smaller neighbors, and threatening Taiwan. In Africa, Beijing is using debt diplomacy to gain control of crucial ports and other infrastructure. And in Europe, the Trump administration is pushing NATO to address potential Chinese cyberthreats and commercial threats.

“I think the biggest threat to democracy and the way of life around the world is the trend that we see in China,” Faller said.

He said China was trying to assert economic control in Venezuela by investing in infrastructure and providing hefty loans that Caracas would have difficulty paying back. Much of Beijing’s financial interest in Venezuela is tied to loans-for-oil deals struck between the two countries in 2007. By 2014, the China Development Bank had provided Venezuela with more than $30 billion in loans tied to oil production.

These loans have served to prop up the Venezuelan government over the past two decades, “far beyond the point at which its bad policies would have historically caused a change,” said Evan Ellis, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“There is no other actor in Latin America, with the possible exception of the Cubans, who as much controls the fate of Nicolás Maduro and his henchman as China does,” Ellis said.

China also has a major information technology footprint in the country. The Chinese telecommunications giant ZTE is creating a new ID card that can be used to monitor citizens’ behavior, Faller said. Using information from these cards, the government can trace a person’s finances, medical history, and voting record, Reuters reported last fall.

Meanwhile, Beijing has sold more than $615 million in weapons to Venezuela over the last 10 years, according to information provided by U.S. Southern Command.

“China is hedging its bets and being unhelpful” in Venezuela, Faller said. “For a nation who wishes to stake their claim amongst the great nations, they are certainly not respecting human rights, sovereignty, democracy—any of the things that this neighborhood values.”

Last week, one news site reported that the Chinese army sent 120 troops to the country. But a spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry dismissed it as inaccurate. U.S. Southern Command declined to comment.

Faller would not discuss specific U.S. plans for a military intervention to oust Maduro in favor of opposition leader Juan Guaidó. He said the military is “looking at a range” of options and “will be ready” for whatever decision the president makes.

“We are on the balls of our feet,” Faller said.

He compared Maduro to the authoritarian leader Bashar al-Assad of Syria.

“The crisis in Venezuela could approach that degree by the end of this year if Maduro still remains in power. It’s that bad,” said Faller, who served previously as the director of operations at U.S. Central Command.

Southern Command identifies that 17 out of 31 Latin American nations have joined China’s Belt and Road Initiative; meanwhile, 23 host Chinese infrastructure projects, including 56 ports across the region. China has provided Latin American countries more than $150 billion in loans since 2005.

The Pentagon is also increasingly concerned about China’s new deep space ground station in Argentina, from which the Chinese military can monitor and potentially target U.S. and allied satellites.

“The degree to which China was investing across all the elements of power in the region is startling and concerning,” Faller said.

Some analysts counter that China’s role in Latin America has been positive. According to a recent paper by Ted Piccone, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, the Chinese demand for the region’s commodities has helped drive an economic boom in the past decade that “doubled the size of Latin America’s middle class and dramatically reduced poverty.”

“For now … China’s rise has generally not unduly harmed core U.S. national security interests in the LAC region,” Piccone wrote. “The trends, however, require careful monitoring and ongoing dialogue to avoid a more hostile environment.”

In particular, Faller is apprehensive about China’s second Belt and Road forum, planned to take place at the end of April. During the forum, he expects Beijing will try to dismiss accusations of predatory loans and debt diplomacy.

“Fair, reciprocal, transparent—we are all in,” Faller said. “But that has not been the facts to date.”

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman

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