Juan Guaido, the Venezuelan parliamentary and opposition leader, last week declared himself interim president until a fresh election is held. The White House swiftly threw its weight behind Guaido and was followed by a string of Latin American countries and allies, including Canada, Japan, and Israel.
The international community failed to pick one side; however, as Russia, China, Turkey, Syria, Iran, South Africa, Cuba and Bolivia have endorsed Maduro as the legitimate president.
Moscow accused the US of attempting to engineer a coup d'état in Venezuela, while Beijing warned against new sanctions or military interference in its affairs. "We will continue to support the efforts made by the Venezuelan government to uphold national sovereignty, independence and stability", pledged a spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry.
Incidentally, the Venezuelan crisis broke out amid strained diplomatic and economic relations between Washington and Beijing. Last year, in total sync with his "America First" policy, Donald Trump started a bruising tariff battle with China and accused Chinese tech companies Huawei and ZTE of facilitating espionage by the government — something that they have vehemently denied.
China, which has been expanding into Latin America through infrastructure projects and investments, sees developing relations with oil-rich Venezuela as a "strategic decision", as Xi Jinping put it at a meeting with Nicolas Maduro last September.
Pundits explain Beijing's reasoning for supporting Maduro with economic motives. China is Venezuela's biggest creditor; it has loaned over $50 billion to the country's Chavista government over the past decade — half of all the money it has lent to Latin America.
Caracas has been paying off the debt with oil shipments and reportedly still has nearly $20 billion in outstanding debt to Beijing.
Although Venezuela remains one of the top sources of US' oil imports despite ideological rivalry, massive Chinese investments in its lucrative oil market are thought to be a reason for concern in the United States.
"Trouble in Venezuela? It's all about oil and Venezuela's massive debt, not to the IMF which was expelled by President Hugo Chavez, but to China. In the coverage of the country's present troubles, there has been little mention of this in the mainstream media", political commentator David William Norris told Sputnik.
"As the country continues to fall apart, clearly China will take over more and more control of Venezuela's resources and obtain yet more control over its institutions", he added. "What America and its Western allies must fear more than the left-wing credentials of President Nicolas Maduro is the likelihood of China becoming the new owner of Venezuela's oil industry".
Washington's allies that have endorsed self-proclaimed "interim leader" Guaido have called for "fair" presidential elections in Venezuela. Norris insists that commitment to democracy is not what concerns them in the first place.
"The claim by Spain's prime minister, Pedro Sanchez, that they only want 'democracy and free elections' is such an obvious piece of deceit when what they are clearly after is to snatch control of the oil from China's hands with the assistance of Guaido".
This echoes remarks by some Venezuelan lawmakers: in an interview with Sputnik, Saul Ortega from the Maduro-aligned United Socialist Party called the US' stance on Venezuela part of a broader policy to "re-colonise Latin America and the Caribbean", branding Guaido "nothing more than a puppet of the gringos".
Dr Antonio C. Hsiang from the Taiwan-based Chihlee University of Technology described the situation in Venezuela as part of a bigger "geopolitical game" by the US to contain China — or at least an attempt to prevent its "natural extension to the US backyard".
China largely relies on such oil exporters as Venezuela and Iran, and some observers say that the United States is ratcheting up pressure on them to undermine China's interest in the energy market.
Last year, China and Venezuela signed 28 cooperation agreements, most of which were related with crude oil processing, energy engineering, and mining. Venezuela also announced plans to triple its oil exports to China.
It remains unclear, however, whether Guaido will agree to honour Maduro's commitments if he manages to oust the embattled president. Dr Hsiang insists that Beijing is reluctant to "any domestic howl of protest to unpaid debt from Venezuela". He recalled that in December 2017, Sinopec USA, a subsidiary of Chinese oil and gas conglomerate Sinopec, sued Venezuela's state-owned oil giant PDVSA in a US court for unpaid bills.
The views expressed in this article are solely those of the contributors and do not necessarily reflect the official position of Sputnik.