BEIJING (AFP) — Despite his gushing compliments this week, Beijing has been careful to keep Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez at a distance as it tries not to jeopardise its relations with Washington, analysts say.
On Thursday evening at the end of a 48-hour visit to Beijing, Latin America's leftwing leader-in-chief was at pains to underline the strong links between his oil-producing country and the world's third largest economy.
"Relations between China and Venezuela are strengthening," he said.
"We have established committees to continue this work, to increase Chinese investment in Venezuela," above and beyond 12 billion dollars said Chavez, who 24 hours earlier declared that "the world's centre of gravity had shifted to Beijing."
Since Chavez came to power a decade ago relations between Venezuela and China have been predicated on oil, said Professor Gonzalo Paz of George Washington University in the United States.
"It is now a more comprehensive relationship, involving telecommunications, satellites, the construction of railways and the development of agricultural irrigation systems, but still at the heart of it lies oil," he said.
As a growing superpower, China needs to secure more oil for its burgeoning economy from more diverse places, and Venezuela needs to ween itself off dependence on the US market.
It is here that the interests of the two countries intersect. Added to that, both share a desire to see a multi-, rather than uni-polar world order.
But, say experts, Beijing is wary of pushing this too far for fear that could endanger its relations with Washington.
"China as an emerging power plays it both ways... nice-nice with Obama and then nice-nice with South. Great position to occupy," said Riordan Roett, a Latin America specialist at Baltimore's Johns Hopkins University.
"Beijing knows it is the next superpower. Why bother with Hugo Chavez? Because he is there and it keeps Washington on edge a little bit without real policy implications," he said.
For Roett, the changed political landscape in the US may go some way to explaining China's reluctance to get too close to Chavez.
"Beijing, especially after the Obama election, realises a new chapter is probably opening in US-China relations. Why jeopardise it with more powerful relations with Hugo Chavez?"
China knows it has to be careful not to do the same as the Russians when they carried out joint naval exercises last year with Venezuela in the Caribbean -- traditionally considered the United States' backyard.
"President Chavez would like a more strategic relationship with China," said Paz. "But Venezuelan hopes are always higher than those of China."
During his visit to Beijing, Chavez said he and Hu Jintao had discussed the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA) -- the South American left's answer to a free trade agreement and a pet project of Chavez's.
But, say analysts, whether he will be able to convince the Chinese to support the project against the US-backed Free Trade Area of the Americas, is another matter.
"China has been cautious about openly endorsing ALBA because of the negative response this would provoke from Washington" said Adrian Hearn, research fellow at the School of Social and Political Sciences at Sydney University.
"The Summit of the Americas (from April 17 to 19 in Trinidad and Tobago) will be a key opportunity for Chavez to promote ALBA. If he can announce Chinese support for ALBA he will have won a political battle against the US," said Hearn.
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