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

Commander of the US Southern Command, Admiral Craig Faller, testifies during a US Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, February 7, 2019. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP) (Photo credit should read 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 isbuilding up its military capability, intimidating its smaller neighbors, and threateningTaiwan.

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.