BEIJING – Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said his country is no longer the backyard of the U.S. and that he finds it more important to visit Beijing than New York, as he arrived Tuesday in China's capital on the first leg of an international tour.
The outspoken U.S. critic hopes to boost ties with China's communist leadership through increased oil sales, partly to reduce dependency on the United States, which still buys about half of Venezuela's oil despite years of tensions.
"China is showing the world and has shown the world that it isn't necessary to harm anyone to be a great power," Chavez told reporters upon his arrival in Beijing. "They're soldiers of peace."
Asked about his absence from talks this week on the sidelines of the United Nations in New York, Chavez said: "It's much more important to be in Beijing than in New York."
Chavez's visit comes amid stepped-up confrontation with the U.S., including Russia's dispatch Monday of a naval squadron to hold joint maneuvers with Venezuela's navy.
The deployment of Russian military power to the Western Hemisphere is unprecedented since the Cold War and follows a weeklong visit to Venezuela by a pair of Russian strategic bombers.
"The only thing we demand from the next government of the United States is that it respect our nation, that's all, Chavez said. "We're no longer the backyard of the United States."
The leader — who once called U.S. President George W. Bush the devil — said he wouldn't respond to recent criticism of him by the presidential candidates in the U.S.
"I don't respond to candidates," he said. "If (Sen. John) McCain wins or (Sen. Barack) Obama wins, well, I'll be ready."
Asked about Venezuela's relations with the U.S., Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu emphasized Beijing's wish not to let ties with Chavez's government complicate relations with Washington.
"Our bilateral relations are not based on ideology, and are not against a third party, and will not affect any other country's relations with Venezuela," Jiang said.
But Chavez appeared eager to cast the visit as part of his larger efforts to wrestle economic and political clout away from the U.S.
"We're moving forward with a very clear international strategy. China and Venezuela agree on this: the multi-polar world," Chavez said.
China is a key link in Chavez's strategy to develop new markets for its oil exports, and Venezuelan state oil company Petroleos de Venezuela SA, or PDVSA, has ramped up shipments to China to 250,000 barrels a day as of April. It aims to lift that figure to 500,000 barrels a day by 2010.
Venezuela and China have also signed accords to build three refineries in China. Other plans call for building a refinery in Venezuela and launching a joint oil development project in the crude-rich Orinoco River belt and for China to build oil tankers for Venezuela.
"Ten years ago, the commercial relationship between China and Venezuela was almost nonexistent," Chavez added. "This year we're going to be above $8 billion (in trade)."
China will launch Venezuela's first satellite on Nov. 1, and Chavez has said Venezuela also plans to buy K-8 military planes from China for training its pilots.
Beijing has not commented on reports that Venezuela will buy two dozen of the fighters.
After China, Chavez will travel to Russia for his second visit in about two months, to be followed by stops in Portugal and France.