Features | Security

Brazil’s Strategic Expansion in the Indo-Pacific

Despite its Atlantic seaboard, Brazil’s future ambitions set sights into the Indo-Pacific.

By Balaji Chandramohan for
Brazil’s Strategic Expansion in the Indo-Pacific

Backdropped by a giant Brazilian national flag, members of the Presidential Guard Battalion prepare for a military ceremony marking the 196th anniversary of the Empire’s Battalion, in Brasilia, Brazil, Friday, July 5, 2019..

Credit: AP Photo/Eraldo Peres

As part of its grander geostrategic ambitions, Brazil aims to expand its strategic reach in the Indo-Pacific region. Moving from a regional power in South America to a global player will entail Brasilia extending its influence across the Pacific to the west coast of Africa and eventually around to the wider Indo-Pacific region.

This grand strategic vision has accelerated under the current Brazailian leadership. 

Despite being a rising star in the developing world, Brazil has been mired in severe recession and political turmoil since 2015. The 2018 presidential election was the country’s most polarized and divisive in modern history. President Jair Messias Bolsonaro took office on January 1, 2019 following the bitterly contested election and it’s expected that Brazil will adopt a tough posture when it comes establishing its strategic priorities. 

Brazil has a slightly different position on what constitutes threats to the country’s national security. Although Brazil has one of the largest and most sophisticated of the Latin American militaries, its armed forces lack combat experience because of an absence of large-scale regional conflict in South America in recent decades.

Brazil’s primary threats do not come from the sea, but from land, as Brazil shares its borders with 10 countries, some of which have histories of rebel insurgencies. This aspect influences the country’s strategic culture and directs the composition of its armed forces.

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Despite the above traditional continental geopolitical focus within the Brazilian security establishment, it’s expected that in the years to come the South American country will morph from a nervous Middle Power to a Great Power in the Western Hemisphere. This transition will be reflected in part via the geopolitical construct that is the Indo-Pacific. 

In pursuit of its strategic objectives, Brazil has begun shifting its strategic priorities toward maritime and air force projection, while maintaining a dominant land-based component. 

Furthermore, the Brazil Armed Forces need modernization. In the past, its military primarily had an internal defense focus despite a transition to democracy, and, as mentioned above, it lacks direct conflict experience.

Brazil is ruled by well entrenched post-authoritarian regimes that combine electoral politics with commodity exports as the basis for national growth. Nearly 30 years after the end of its military dictatorship, Brazil is clearly a maturing, political democracy. Its grand strategy going forward will combine, to a certain extent, foreign and defense policies.

During the presidency of Dilma Rousseff from 2011 to her 2016 impeachment, Brazil began to shift its strategic focus in earnest to the Indo-Pacific. But it was during the presidency of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, from 2003 to 2010, that Brazil’s interest in Asia, and in particular the Indian Ocean, accelerated.

Brazil’s present grand strategic vision is aided by the rise of Asia and Africa and the breaking down of 20th century mental maps that emerged between different sub-regions in the Indo-Paciic, stretch from Africa to the western Pacific. Brazil will first seek to expand its influence in Africa and if possible, into Asia.

In the meantime, Brasilia has engaged in important interactions with major Asian powers. In an effort to complement its strategic orientation and goals, Brazil has flirted with China on a long-imagined railway project that envisions railways connecting Brazil’s Atlantic coast across the Andes — the world’s longest continental mountain range — to ports on the Pacific. 

The project would allow ships from China and other countries to dock in Peru and load cargo that had been sent from Brazil by rail. Commodities from China and other countries could also take the shortcut rail route, instead of passing through the Panama Canal to the Atlantic Ocean and sailing far to the south to reach ports in South America.

The project will create extensive railway infrastructure to link the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, from the Ilo port in Peru to Sao Paulo, Brazil. The project might be linked into China’s larger Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to which Chile and Peru have signed on and other countries have expressed support for.

Brazil’s reach in the Indo-Pacific, especially via Africa, will be facilitated by its Portuguese connections and language. Portuguese-speaking countries such as Angola, Cape Verde, Equatorial Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, and Mozambique will help Brazil’s military, economic and political expansion in Africa, and Timor-Leste in Asia presents a further opportunity.

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Brazil’s expansion in Africa will be facilitated by the South American School of Defense (ESUDE in Portuguese), headquartered in Quito, Ecuador. And Brazil’s Navy gives assistance to the African Union and cooperates with countries in Africa such as Cape Verde and Namibia as a part of its strategic cooperation with those countries and others.

Among the states positioned along the south Atlantic seaboard, Brazil possesses the longest coastline (7,491 km) which may help it project its maritime power. An essential element buttressing it’s maritime power is Brazil’s continental power, giving it strategic depth much like the United States. 

Despite Brazil having a green-water navy — one focused on the country’s littoral waters and immediate ocean region — it’s expected that its maritime capability will be facilitated through sea-control and sea-denial strategies befitting a blue-water navy in the upcoming years. 

Brazil will make hefty short and medium term investments in its deterrence capacity via the modernization of its military forces, and specially programs to monitor land borders, military transport and fighter aviation as well as an urgent retrofitting of the country’s navy.

Mired in economic chaos in the 1990s, the Brazilian Navy could not expand its strategic presence despite help from Germany for its submarine development program. But a paradigm shift in Brazil’s fleet program began in 2008 when France and Brazil decided to adopt a strategic capability plan to boost the latter’s maritime capability. 

The strategic alliance between Brazil and France concluded in 2008 envisaged a project to build five new submarines. The contours of the agreement were questioned immediately, focusing on whether the project involved construction of a nuclear submarine as well. Brazil is expected to have a nuclear submarine by 2029. Like Australia, Brazil seeks to tap into France’s expertise in developing its submarine force structure.

The Scorpène-class Riachuelo, the first of four conventional submarines from the Submarine Development Program (PROSUB, in Portuguese), was launched on December 14, 2018 and and began sea trials in September 2019. Interestingly, Brazil’s submarine development program has a had bipartisan support. The Riachuelo will be incorporated into the country’s Submarine Force, under the Brazilian Navy Fleet Command.

The submarine was constructed as a public-private partnership between Brazil and France. Interestingly, the partnership stipulates that the French will not only advise Brazilians on the construction of the submarines but also help with design. 

In another aspect of projecting maritime power, Brazil will phase out its current aircraft carrier Sao Paulo in the upcoming years. When the United States resurrected its Fourth Fleet in 2008, then-President da Silva suggested that the re-establishment of the Latin America-focused fleet indicated U.S. interest in Brazil’s oil reserves. The submarine development program accelerated in this period.

PROSUB is supported by a sophisticated naval base in Itaguaí city, about 70 km from Rio de Janeiro, which contains the required infrastructure to operate and maintain both conventional and nuclear submarine models. 

Apart from the technology transfers, France will train Brazilian personnel in submarine planning and construction.

The Navy Nuclear Program at the Brazilian Navy’s Technological Center in Sao Paulo develops all of PROSUB’s nuclear technology. To date, only six countries in the world can build and operate nuclear-powered submarines and a handful have development programs like Brazil.

If Brazil further invests in developing a nuclear-powered submarine fleet, it’s likely to take an opposite strategic course from China and Russia, which have both invested to a certain extent in so-called bastion maritime strategies when it comes to nuclear submarines. In setting its sights on moving beyond the south Atlantic and into the Indian Ocean, Brazil’s strategy will chart a different course.

Also in an effort to develop its maritime capability, Brazil might look for active participation in the Pacific Alliance which includes Columbia, Chile, Mexico, and Peru as full members. 

Columbia, Chile, Mexico, and Peru regularly participate in the RIMPAC naval exercise and cooperate with the U.S. Southern Command. 

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The Pacific Alliance has a handful of candidates, associates, and 55 observer nations. As of summer 2018, Costa Rica and Panama were candidates and several other states — Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea — are associates or potential candidates. India is an observer state, along with countries as is China, Indonesia, the UK and others across the world.

Brazil could seek to join as at least an observer nation. 

The Pacific Alliance has a combined population of 225 million and accounts for 38 percent of the region’s foreign direct investment. The Pacific Alliance cooperates with Mercosur — the regional trade block linking Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay. 

Looking ahead, as Brazil’s economic clout and geopolitical position grow, it’s expected to expand strategically toward Africa and into the wider Indo-Pacific. These ambitions are underscored by an evolving maritime strategy and naval modernization plans and could be supplemented by more active participation in region structures like Mercosur and the Pacific Alliance.

Balaji Chandramohan is a Visiting Fellow with Future Directions International.