Brazil’s Canny Asia Game
Image Credit: World Economic Forum

Brazil’s Canny Asia Game


If there’s one book that former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva ought to have presented to his successor Dilma Rousseff on stepping down, it’s the recently published Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power by Robert Kaplan.  

Why? In the book, Kaplan examines the United States’ interest in the Indian Ocean region, providing ample evidence of why the area has been of such importance for great powers throughout history, starting with the Portuguese back in the 16th century, and ending with the US, Chinese and Indian roles in the region in the 21st century.

Lula has certainly been a great statesman and a revered world leader. Indeed, US President Barack Obama dubbed him the ‘most popular politician on earth,’ while last year Time named him the world’s most influential leader—the first time a Latin American leader had been selected for this honour.

So what’s in store now for a nation that has just lost such a highly regarded leader? Well, if President Rousseff can build on Lula’s recognition of the importance of the Indian Ocean region for boosting trade, then things are looking good.

Back in 1510, India’s Goa—now a holiday paradise—was captured by the Portuguese. This move set the stage for further colonial advances and the eventual takeover of large parts of Asia by Western powers including the Netherlands, France and later the British.

The Portuguese, with limited military power, weren’t able to establish active rule in some of the further flung parts of Asia, but were still able to establish trading outposts in the region that allowed them to indirectly control trade between not only Europe and Asia, but also among areas that now fall within modern day India, China and Indonesia. Indeed, Portugal established trading ports in locations like Goa, Ormuz (in the present day Persian Gulf), Malacca (Malaysia), Kochi (India), the Maluku Islands (Indonesia) and Nagasaki.

Fast forward to today, and some of these spots are now seen as vital for key trade routes—something that hasn’t gone unnoticed by the Brazilian leadership.

In Macau, Brazil has been looking to build on the language legacy of its former Portuguese masters by building ties with the island. In December 1999, Macau became the second Special Administrative Region of China following the transition of local administration from Portugal to China.

From around 2003 onwards, Portuguese-speaking countries emerged as the most important asset of Macau’s foreign ties, providing ample space for Brazil to step in. That year, China launched a new initiative called the Forum for Economic and Commercial Cooperation between China and Portuguese Speaking Countries (Fórum para a Cooperação Económica e Comercial entre a China e os Países de Língua Portuguesa, in Portuguese), known more memorably as the Macao Forum.

Ken Westmoreland
February 21, 2012 at 08:56

Brazil has only scratched the surface, and unfortunately, is making the same mistake as Portugal, seeing Asia in terms of former colonial enclaves rather than expand into wider regions – Goa rather than India generally, Macau rather than China generally, and East Timor rather than neighbouring ASEAN countries, not least Indonesia.

It does not have an international cultural institute comparable to those of other countries, even Portugal’s Instituto Camões, which is increasingly cash-strapped. (As is Portugal itself, which is only now looking to expand its diplomatic presence in Asia.) While most Australian universities teach Spanish, on the grounds that it is a useful language in Latin America, only one teaches Portuguese, despite it having more speakers in Brazil alone than German, French and Italian combined.

It’s true that Brazil exports a lot of aircraft to Australia, which would be evidence that it isn’t the backwater that Australians might think it is, but how many Australians have heard of Embraer, much less care that they were flying on one of its aircraft? GM’s Australian subsidiary, Holden, exports cars to Brazil, but those Brazilians who drive them (on the other side of the road) could be forgiven for thinking that they’re from the US. These aren’t visible exports.

As for cultural diplomacy, Brazil should have an international TV channel with programming, including telenovelas, subtitled in local languages, rather than dubbed.

Brazil has enormous potential in forging a network for south-south cooperation, including other regional giants, like Indonesia. Unfortunately, when I her about south-south cooperation, I remember what Mahatma Gandhi said about Western civilisation – “I think it would be an excellent idea”.

March 10, 2011 at 09:21


February 16, 2011 at 18:37

John Chan wrote: “. But most ‘constructive criticism’ of China from outside of China has hidden agenda, which aimed to undermine, destabilize and break up China. Those criticisms are from people they never practise what they preach.”

Are you currently on drugs? I mean you cant be serious, its the 21st Century.

The only people I read online who seem to advocate a 19th Century imperialism are Chinese commentators.

No one wants to see a break up of China. China was created in the modern age in 1949 under Mao. That is the China we know. Taiwan, areas of South China sea are not China, nor more than Normandy is part of England.

I wasn’t born in the 18th century, 2000 BC or any other time that you seem to believe you were.

All we want is a nation and a people that put as much effort into treating thier neighbors and thier views as being equal as them and building a friendly relationship with them as they do with building a strong military, making claims over others territory, insulting them, and seeing them as second rate.

Seriously if China and Chinese commentators on here can see themselves as less than victims and future revengers of percieved insults than you would find less comments and concerns by others.

Chinese commentators on here seem like the classic neighborhood bully standing on the corner with a club in thier hand, saying just wait until I get my hands on you and we will really show you.

John Chan
February 2, 2011 at 05:20

Genuine constructive criticism is always welcome by everybody not only China. But most ‘constructive criticism’ of China from outside of China has hidden agenda, which aimed to undermine, destabilize and break up China. Those criticisms are from people they never practise what they preach.

People intend to criticize China must look in the mirror themselves first before dishing out criticism; they must clearly understand that they don’t own moral high ground. At the same time they must be able scrutinized by other critics before criticizing somebody else.

China has its own view and value, which may different from other people in this world; other people must respect that difference and let that difference coexist. Anybody treats that difference with contempt is nothing but a bigot and racist.

January 30, 2011 at 15:13

guest wrote: “India has never been “cuddly” except in the eyes of patronizing arrogant Anglo hippies and orientalists.”

The same could equally be said for China.

Dont ignore the peoples understanding of issues. Many times those in democratic societies choose the “best of lesser evils”.

If both countries feel the need to be loved, then maybe they should work harder at improving thier global view.

The current Mainland Chinese need to see that while I can be attacked for the sins of my Great Grandfather, thier own sins can loom large and clear for those today.

We Know India as it doesn’t hide its failures (as large as they loom), but China needs to accept that criticism by friends is better than wounds by enemies.

January 28, 2011 at 00:04

India has never been “cuddly” except in the eyes of patronizing arrogant Anglo hippies and orientalists.

Praveen Kumar
January 27, 2011 at 15:15

The article’s conclusions based on few anecdotal examples seem to be a bit far stretched. East Timor has only a population of 1.2 million. It has liberated itself from Indonesia only in 2002. India cannot and would rather not invest a lot in these countries when its humanitarian aid/ in the form of UN aid or other currency credits are already being utilized in Africa in a form larger than Brazil. True, Brazil has started projecting its soft power, but it already was a soft power through soccer and samba long before Cricket and Bollywood.

January 27, 2011 at 09:38

Great article.

That Brazil has big ambitions cannot be doubted. Here in Australia, they are very active. Like China and India, they are active in buying up mining assets. Unlike China and India, they have also made a visible mark in the sale of prestigious high tech goods. Many Australians will/have had the experience of flying on one of the a Brazilian passenger jet plying our skies – with more of this to come.

Brazil also does well in projecting its soft power through its soccer and music. India has its cricket (but this limited to the few countries who play the game) and China its all round sporting prowess. But soccer seems to have that something that pulls huge numbers of people in a way that other sports do not. True that India has its films and music but if Brazil really pushes its music and dance, this may be a real rival. China seems to project its soft power in a way that appeals more to elites eg the work of the Conficius Institutes.

My sense is that Brazil is replacing India as the “cuddly” superpower that no one feels threatened by as India increasingly begins to bare its teeth so that smaller countries are now beginning to get scared in the same way that they are scared of China.

I think most smaller countries will welcome Brazil into the region – if only as an alternative to balance the giants already here, US, China and India.

Interesting times indeed.

One Man Standing
January 26, 2011 at 20:13

Great story – but also watch Portugal as it has definitely awaken out of its slumber…(despite current defice worries).

Question is when will India turn Goa into a strategic location for trade (similar to what the Chinese have done to Macau)? Brazil, Angola, Portugal and Mozambique are important strategically and economically for the development of India.

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