Features | Security | Oceania

Brazil’s Canny Asia Game

Former Brazilian President Lula da Silva oversaw a period of growing influence in the Asia-Pacific. Will his successor follow suit?

By Balaji Chandramohan for

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.

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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.

The forum is aimed at deepening ties between China and countries such as Portugal, Brazil, Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, Cape Verde and Timor-Leste. Brazil has carefully positioned itself as a vital link for Chinese efforts at expanding its influence in these countries, and its willingness to act as a kind of facilitator for China appears to have paid off, in trading terms at least—in 2009, China surpassed the United States to become Brazil’s leading trading partner.

Brazil’s efforts stretch beyond trade, and it has also been developing its soft power ties with the region. For example, each year in Brazil, late February sees Goa Carnival celebrations being held across the country (with government backing) with the streets coming alive with lights, music and festivities.

In addition, the Brazilian government is also actively engaged with Goa University’s Centre for Latin American studies in promoting the Portuguese language and Brazilian culture, while the Education Ministry has started a scholarship programme for full-time postgraduate courses to attract bright students from the developing world to study in Brazil. Many students from countries including India and East Timor have already benefited from the programme.

But it’s arguably on the strategic level that Brazil’s role in the Asia-Pacific is really starting to get interesting. With many of the Pacific islands and smaller states apparently becoming increasingly disillusioned with US political expediency and Indo-China rivalry, the door is open for an outsider like Brazil to play a bigger role.

East Timor is a classic example. During East Timor’s presidential and legislative elections in 2007, Brazil sent an observer mission consisting of members of parliament, diplomats and a teacher to help the budding state with education, justice, security and training of professionals. This outreach earned Brazil praise not just in East Timor, but around the region; Brazil is expected to send another such mission for the upcoming legislative and presidential elections in 2012.

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Last year may well go down in history as the moment when Brazil was recognised as having graduated from regional power to global one—a country with the influence to impact affairs around the globe. This has been made possible in large part through its canny playing of the cultural card, as well as its understanding of the importance of the Indian Ocean’s geopolitical history.

Brazil therefore now has the chance to be a force to be reckoned with in the Asia-Pacific. The question is whether the new president will be able to seize this opportunity. 

Balaji Chandramohan is editor of World Security Network. He can be reached at: [email protected]