China’s Appetite for Risk in Venezuela

˙ Asia & Latin America

Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro left China last month with a supposed show of support from the Chinese government. According to Venezuelan Oil Minister Rafael Ramírez’s tweets, Chinese oil firm CNPC will proceed with investments in Venezuela’s Junín 10 oil field bloc. And Sinopec will make a planned multi-million dollar contribution to Junín 1. Officials also reportedly finalized plans for a $5 billion Joint Development Fund contribution from the China Development Bank.

Whether or not these deals materialize, they indicate sustained interest among Chinese officials and firms in cooperation with the Maduro administration.They suggest that China is upholding its commitment to oil exploitation in Venezuela even as other firms prepare an exit strategy. On October 2nd, Russian firm Lukoil indicated that it will sell its 8 percent stake in Junín 6 to the National Petroleum Consortium, a union of Russian companies with a 40 percent share in the oil bloc. Only months earlier, Russian firm Surgutneftegas did the same.

According the Financial Times, the recent Lukoil decision to underscores the challenges facing investors in Venezuela’s oil sector — some projects have been slow to get off the ground, while others are caught up in legal disputes. Political risk, according to the same article, is yet another reason for firm departure.

Other companies have left Venezuela for similar reasons. ExxonMobil and ConocoPhillips left after being stripped of their leading role in Orinoco joint ventures. They continue to seek compensation in arbitration proceedings. Malaysian Petronas pulled out of Carabobo-1 in September of this year. Since 2010, the company has reportedly limited its participation in marginal or “loss-making” exploration projects.

Why the Chinese commitment, then?

As China energy expert, William Norris, describes well in a Dialogue working paper, the Chinese government is still seeking a supply of energy to meet its growing needs. China’s lenders have also indicated that their oil-backed loans and content stipulations mitigate risk in Venezuela. Often backed by state banks and insurance corporations, China’s oil firms are afforded a certain appetite for risk.

It could also be the case that competition among Chinese oil firms is driving some of these deals. China’s “going-out” strategy is by no means perfectly coordinated. Chinese oil firms are notorious for competing with each other in auctions for international stakes.

The risks associated with investment in Venezuela haven’t gone unnoticed in China. Investors are carefully observing nationalization efforts, protectionist policies and tax regulations in various Latin American nations. The China National Petroleum Company (CNPC) released a report on the implications of Venezuela’s new tax plan for the Chinese petroleum industry. It concluded that the tax burden for China’s large-scale oil projects could be as high as eighty percent of total profit and pegged the policy as a deterrent to future investment.

In 2012, The Washington Post reported that Chinese officials are increasingly frustrated with delays and a lack of preferential access in the Orinoco. Output has also been a problem. According to Bloomberg, output at new Orinoco fields was supposed to reach 195,000 barrels a day by the end of last year. Instead, production is closer to a 6,000 barrel-a-day “trickle” that’s costing state-owned PdVSA an estimated $19 million a day in lost revenue. This according to data provided by the Venezuelan Oil Chamber and officials at Russian, Asian, European and U.S. companies partnering with PdVSA.

It would seem, though, that despite obvious challenges, China’s strategic partnerships with Venezuela will remain intact for the time being. Chinese oil companies are still associated with development of the Junín 1, 4, 8, 10, and Boyaca 3 blocs (see graphic). China’s foreign policy apparatus is looking, furthermore, to forge stronger and longer-term friendships throughout Latin America. Close relations with Venezuela are one part of the equation.

But the trend in China is toward comprehensive risk assessment and a more well-informed approach to the region. If not yet in Venezuela (or Argentina, for that matter), the region should eventually expect more methodical engagement from Chinese entities. 

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