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.

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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.

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