Friday, August 25, 2006

The visit to China by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez this week is being watched closely by U.S. national security officials who are concerned that Beijing is increasing its backing for the leftist leader.

A defense official involved in Asian affairs said the visit to Beijing by Mr. Chavez is part of China’s strategy of forming coalitions aimed at controlling resource markets — in Venezuela’s case, access to oil.

“China does not believe in free markets and wants to lock up access to them,” the official said. He noted that Beijing thinks the United States is trying to block access to international energy and other resources as part of a containment strategy designed to prevent the emergence of a threatening China.

In Beijing yesterday, Chinese President Hu Jintao warmly welcomed Mr. Chavez, who has proposed an ambitious plan for his country to almost quadruple sales to China to 1 million barrels per day in the next decade.

“I believe that, through your visit, the two countries’ cooperation in all aspects can be promoted,” Mr. Hu told the Venezuelan leader at the Great Hall of the People, the Associated Press reported from Beijing.

Mr. Chavez responded by saying that “mutual trust between our two countries has been deepening, and the economic and cultural exchanges have been strengthening.”

Mr. Chavez told reporters that he hoped to be exporting 500,000 barrels of oil per day to China by 2009.

“And in the next decade, we will aim for a million barrels,” he said.

Mr. Chavez also sought and won Beijing’s backing for Venezuela’s bid for a nonpermanent seat on the U.N. Security Council next year, something the Bush administration opposes.

China views souring relations between Washington and Caracas as a strategic opportunity and is cautiously coaxing Mr. Chavez into reducing Venezuela’s current large exports to the United States, the defense official said.

Currently, Venezuela ships about 1.5 million barrels of oil a day to the United States, accounting for about 10 percent of all U.S. oil imports.

The Chavez government earlier this year threatened to curtail oil exports to the United States over concerns that the Bush administration was planning to invade Venezuela or otherwise oust the leftist government.

Mr. Chavez has embarked on a major arms buildup that includes purchases of Russian, European and Chinese weapons.

Richard Fisher, a specialist on the Chinese military with the International Assessment and Strategy Center, noted that Mr. Chavez said earlier this year that he would consider buying Chinese jet fighters in addition to 24 Su-30 fighter bombers purchased as part of a $3 billion deal with Russia.

The first of three advanced long-range air defense radar purchased from China last year are expected to arrive in Venezuela next month, and the Venezuelan military plans to buy as many as seven more JYL-1 radar by next year, U.S. officials said.

Additional weapons purchases likely will be discussed during Mr. Chavez’s meetings with Chinese leaders, including Mr. Hu.

The purchases followed a Bush administration decision to block sales of spare parts from the United States for Venezuela’s F-16 jets.

“Within the next two to three years, China will be able to offer integrated air defense systems, from satellites to [airborne warning and controls systems], to fighters and [surface-to-air missiles], and naval weapons,” Mr. Fisher said.

China’s sale of military equipment to Venezuela appears to contradict a pledge made by Beijing officials to the U.S. government earlier this year.

Thomas A. Shannon, assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, told The Washington Times recently that China informed the United States it is “not interested in political or military adventures” in Latin America and other developing areas of the world.

Recent efforts to entice China’s government into joining the United States in helping promote global stability have failed, U.S. officials said. High-level U.S.-China talks aimed at promoting the concept of China joining the United States as a “stakeholder” in world affairs were rebuffed by the Chinese during recent talks with Deputy Secretary of State Robert B. Zoelleck.

There are also concerns that the close ties between Venezuela and Cuba will lead to covert arms supplies from China to Cuba through Venezuela.

China has delivered some military goods to Cuba since the 1990s, according to U.S. officials.

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