Soldiers of the Venezuelan National Guard ride Chinese-manufactured armored vehicles during a 2014 parade commemorating the death of former Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez. Photo Credit: Xavier Granja Cedeño / Ecuadorean Chancellery
Venezuela declared in late September that it had obtained a new shipment of Chinese C-802A anti-ship cruise missiles, which can target vessels more than 190 nautical miles away.[i] The YJ-83, the C-802A’s parent missile, is the Chinese navy’s primary anti-ship armament and is found aboard many Chinese warships.[ii] This recent C-802A delivery and another 2017 shipment of the same class of missiles highlight China’s continued use of arms sales to cement ties with the authoritarian Bolivarian regime in the country.
Close to 90% of Beijing’s arms transfers to Latin America over the past several years have all been channeled to Venezuela.[iii] China’s arms sales have included various armored vehicles, artillery, and light aircraft, and the regime in Venezuela has often obtained such assets at discounted prices in exchange for oil deliveries to Beijing.[iv]
Perceptions of China’s foreign policy in Latin America usually focus on economic activities such as financial investments and infrastructure development. However, Chinese arms sales in the region, while not as prominent as the economic tools of statecraft, still warrant further attention from policymakers and analysts. The case of Venezuela demonstrates the potential negative effects that such transactions could have on both the deteriorating humanitarian situation in the country and the security of the Western Hemisphere.
First, the government of Nicolás Maduro has harnessed Chinese-imported weaponry to brutally suppress demonstrations against the regime. For example, Venezuelan security forces used Chinese-manufactured armored vehicles in 2014 and 2019 to crack down on protestors.[v] While reports claim that China has not sold Venezuela any new weapons for the past two years until recently,[vi] it is clear that the weapons that the regime has already stockpiled from previous purchases still enhance the repressive capabilities of security enforcers. Future sales would only embolden the regime to respond to demonstrators with coercive force and secure its position in power.
Second, continued Chinese arms sales would deepen Venezuela’s economic and humanitarian crisis. The Maduro regime often channels its dwindling financial resources into defense spending in order to secure the allegiance of the country’s military and maintain power.[vii] Continued arms purchases from China would only deplete the nation’s coffers and feed into the regime’s excessive spending on the military at the expense of critical social services. The regime may even be tempted to draw from its remaining petroleum resources, already strained by the virtual collapse of the national oil industry, to satisfy the arms-for-oil conditions in its relationship with Beijing. Venezuelan citizens would continue to suffer under these conditions as the regime neglects their needs in pursuit of greater security for itself.
Third, if the Venezuelan military successfully outfits its forces with Chinese weapon systems such as the C802A missile, it could find greater motivation to act aggressively towards nearby countries, such as staging military exercises. Furthermore, Venezuela could also be in a position to challenge U.S. drug-interdiction efforts in waters close to the country, which the Maduro regime has previously threatened.[viii] The U.S. Navy frequently carries out freedom-of-navigation operations close to the Venezuelan coast as part of these anti-drug initiatives.[ix] Venezuelan naval craft equipped with the new anti-ship missiles could try to initiate risky confrontations with U.S. vessels in the area, generating tensions and uncertainty.
Finally, Venezuela’s continued acquisition of Chinese weapons could prove disastrous for regional security if the Maduro regime’s guerrilla allies such as the National Liberation Army (ELN) or various criminal groups get ahold of them. Venezuela’s military arsenals are poorly guarded and maintained.[x] There is a high risk that transnational armed groups based in Venezuela could exploit these security lapses to equip themselves with Chinese-manufactured armored vehicles, missiles, and artillery.
Chinese arms diplomacy in Venezuela may be seen in Beijing as an easy way to curry favor with the Maduro regime and broaden bilateral ties, but such transactions destabilize Venezuela economically and politically, strengthen authoritarian rule in the country, and embolden the Maduro regime’s confrontational attitude towards other states. While Chinese arms diplomacy is only one facet of Beijing’s engagement in Venezuela, it points to a greater need to assess how extraterritorial actors’ actions in the country affect the broader political and economic crises enveloping the country.
[i] HI Sutton, “China Arming Venezuelan Navy With Anti-Ship Missiles,” USNI News, October 16, 2020, https://news.usni.org/2020/10/16/china-arming-venezuelan-navy-with-anti-ship-missiles
[ii] Christopher P. Carlson, “China’s Eagle Strike-Eight Anti-Ship Cruise Missiles: The YJ-83, C803, and the Family Tree, Part 3, Defense Media Network, February 8, 2013, https://www.defensemedianetwork.com/stories/chinas-eagle-strike-eight-anti-ship-cruise-missiles-the-yj-83-c803-and-the-family-tree/
[iii] China Power Team. “How Dominant is China in the Global Arms Trade?” China Power. April 26, 2018. Updated August 25, 2020. Accessed October 26, 2020. https://chinapower.csis.org/china-global-arms-trade/
[iv] Michael Raska and Richard A. Bitzinger, “Strategic Contours of China’s Arms Transfers,” Strategic Studies Quarterly (Spring 2020): p. 102.
[v] Kristin Huang, “Venezuela Sends in China-built ‘Rhinoceros’ Vehiclees to Quell Anti-Government Protests,” South China Morning Post, May 3, 2019, https://www.scmp.com/news/china/military/article/3008783/venezuela-sends-china-built-rhinoceros-vehicles-quell-anti
[vi] Moises Rendon and Claudia Fernandez, “The Fabulous Five: How Foreign Actors Prop Up the Maduro Regime in Venezuela,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, October 2020, p. 6, https://csis-website-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/publication/201019_Rendon_Venezuela_Foreign_Actors.pdf
[vii] Nan Tian and Diego Lopes da Silva, “The Crucial Role of the Military in the Venezuelan Crisis,” Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, April 2, 2019, https://www.sipri.org/commentary/topical-backgrounder/2019/crucial-role-military-venezuelan-crisis
[viii] David Brennan, “Venezuela Threatens ‘Worthy Response’ to U.S. Navy Operations Near Coast,” Newsweek, June 25, 2020, https://www.newsweek.com/venezuela-threatens-worthy-response-us-navy-operations-near-coast-1513335
[ix] Mallory Shelbourne, “Navy Destroyer Performs Freedom of Navigation Operation Off Venezuelan Coast,” USNI News, October 1, 2020, https://news.usni.org/2020/10/01/navy-destroyer-performs-freedom-of-navigation-operation-off-venezuelan-coast
[x] Ryan C. Berg and Andrés Martínez-Fernández, “Venezuela is Armed to the Hilt,” Foreign Policy, May 2, 2019, https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/05/02/venezuela-is-armed-to-the-hilt/