Since Jair Bolsonaro’s election as Brazil’s next president, he has been rowing back on his criticisms of China and adopting a more pragmatic stance. Why has he done this? And what are the chances of him adopting a more robust position once he takes office in January?
During the recent election cycle, Bolsonaro claimed that “China isn’t buying in Brazil. It’s buying Brazil.” His comments reflected his fear that China was moving beyond purchasing Brazilian products and becoming more enmeshed in the Brazilian economy, including investing in nationally sensitive areas like the country’s energy-related and telecommunication services. As if criticizing China wasn’t enough, he also poked the dragon’s sensibilities when he stopped in Taiwan during a trip to East Asia in April, leading the Chinese embassy to send a letter of protest to the head of his campaign.
Little more than a week after his election on October 28, however, Bolsonaro has suddenly become more measured in his language. On November 5 he met with China’s ambassador to Brazil, Li Jinzhang, and said that China was a “great cooperation partner.” He also welcomed Chinese investment and invited more trade between the two countries.
Two immediate reasons explain Bolsonaro’s change of tack. One is that Bolsonaro’s audience during the election was domestic rather than foreign. Despite having served as a congressman for 28 years, the former army captain stood as an outsider in the presidential election. He criticized the former Workers Party government (2003-16), which oversaw the country’s fall into a severe economic crisis. In the year the crisis hit, in 2014, a massive political corruption scandal was exposed. President Lula (2003-10) was jailed and his successor, Dilma Rousseff, impeached (although for unrelated charges).
Bolsonaro’s outsider status was helped by his controversial and reactionary utterances. He denigrated gays and women and expressed support for the military dictatorship that ran Brazil until 1985. He criticized his rivals as part of a communist conspiracy and was dubbed a “Tropical Trump” after the U.S. president that he admired and with whom he indicated a desire to build closer ties.
The second reason for Bolsonaro’s current pragmatism is Brazil’s increasing economic dependency on China. Since 2009 China has become Brazil’s largest trading partner. During 2018 Brazil’s exports reached around $47 billion, about twice what it earns from the United States. In recent years, Chinese investment in Brazil has grown to $20 billion, much of which is based in more value-added sectors. Before 2010 much of the China trade was in commodities like energy supplies and food. Today it is in telecommunications and financial services.
Observers in both Brazil and China pointed out the problems for Brazil if it pushes against China. Speaking to China’s Global Times newspaper, Xu Shuicheng, a fellow at the Chinese Academy’s Institute of Latin American Studies, said, “[Bolsonaro will] realize that he cannot just cut ties with China. Where would he find such a huge market for Brazilian products? Where would be find such big investments that Brazil badly needs?” In Brazil, former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso criticized Bolsonaro for wanting to act like the United States, saying that “We don’t have this ability. China is our largest trading partner and if Brazil acts in a certain way, they will respond.”
Even if Bolsonaro could downplay the China connection and align more with the United States, the impact would be uncertain. Trump wants to protect the U.S. market by putting up barriers against exporters, like China (and perhaps Brazil). Bolsonaro, in contrast sought to win the economic elite’s support by declaring that he would carry out market reforms. That would mean opening up Brazil’s economy and state firms like the Petrobrás petroleum company or Eletrobrás electricity to privatization – which could mean Chinese buyers.
If cozying up to the United States isn’t an option, then what can Bolsonaro do to redress Brazil’s dependency on China? Here it’s worth looking at how Brazil dealt with the United States previously. Until 1945 it walked in close step with Washington. Then, during an early democratic period in 1945-64, Brazil swung between support and confrontation, before the military regime rejected the latter in favor of a cordial alignment. That position persisted into the present democratic regime after 1985, working with the United States on some issues but not others. This approach was known as “autonomy through distance.”
After the Cold War ended and the world became more globalized, Brazil integrated itself into the global economy. It traded with new partners and joined international organizations like the WTO. This approach – “autonomy through participation” – was subsequently expanded under President Lula, whose “autonomy through diversification” meant cultivating ties with more countries, especially in the developing world. It led to more South-South cooperation and links with fellow BRICS countries like China.
As Bolsonaro’s recent experience shows, direct confrontation with China is unlikely to work. Instead, he could adapt the model of autonomy, to balance Brazil’s relations with China with those of other countries. However, Bolsonaro would need to reverse the country’s foreign policy drift since the economic slowdown and become a more activist president in international affairs. He would also need to become more accommodating of Brazil’s ties with other actors – which his rhetoric suggests he may not do. Whether he follows through on them or not, he has threatened to close Brazil’s embassy with Cuba, expressed little interest in Mercosur (the South American common market which Brazil is a member of), and upset the Arab world by planning to move Brazil’s embassy to Jerusalem.
Given developments to date, then, the greater likelihood is that Brazil’s foreign policy will remain a secondary concern to Bolsonaro’s domestic concerns. In such circumstances then, Brazil’s relationship with China will continue as asymmetrical and guided by contingency rather than strategy.
Guy Burton has held a number of teaching and research positions at universities around the world. He completed his Ph.D. at the London School of Economics, where his focus was on the politics of Brazil and Latin America. His current research focuses on the role of rising powers like the BRICS. His most recent book is Rising Powers and the Arab-Israeli Conflict since 1947 (Lexington, 2018).