Explainer: Venezuela’s Oil and Military Ties with China and Russia

Vladimir Putin and Nicolas Maduro Russia Venezuela

On February 12, Chinese officials arrived in Venezuela on a fact-finding mission. Specifically, they were looking for oil. According to internal documents obtained by Reuters, the state oil firm PDVSA is behind on 27 shipments to China totaling almost 9 million barrels as of the end of January.

The delays—due to everything from unseaworthy, rusty ships to unpaid docking fees—are putting a strain on Caracas’ longstanding partnerships with Beijing. Beginning under the late President Hugo Chávez, China lent tens of billions of dollars to Venezuela on credit in exchange for oil, and that credit’s now coming due.

Tallying Venezuela’s trade with China and Russia

When Chávez first took office in 1999, both China and Russia were minor players in Venezuela’s foreign trade, representing less than 1 percent each of Caracas’ foreign exchange. Under Chávez, Venezuela formed China’s first “strategic development partnership” in the Americas, which became a “comprehensive strategic partnership” over a decade later when President Nicolás Maduro came to Miraflores. While Russia still represents about half a percent of Venezuela’s total trade, commerce with China has grown 100-fold to hit $15.7 billion in total trade in 2014, making Beijing the country’s second-largest trading partner after the United States. The Chinese capped off their most recent visit with a pledge to invest another $2.7 billion in the country through 22 projects on everything from energy to science to culture.

Though not of the same scale, Venezuela’s ties with Russia are of importance, particularly militarily. Before the oil price drop at the end of 2014, Venezuela was set to become Russia’s biggest foreign export market for arms by 2025. In return, Russia at one point had plans to invest over $17 billion in Venezuela in hopes of quadrupling oil output there within six years. PDVSA is currently past due on 18 shipments to Russia’s state oil firm, Rosneft, totaling more than…