In late October, Brazil will elect its President for the next four years. Current President Jair Bolsonaro will seek re-election in a fierce run-off race against former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (commonly known as Lula). Both candidates are fraught with controversy.
Lula was convicted of corruption in Operation Car Wash and has not been acquitted, despite being set free. Procedural norms guarantee his eligibility to run in this year’s elections. The scandal heavily affected the image and credibility of many members of the Lula administration. Left for some and center-left for others, Lula compartmentalizes relatively pragmatic public policies in the economy and more ideologically charged narratives in foreign policy. Lula’s foreign policy was headed by both Minister of Foreign Affairs Celso Amorim and international advisor Marco Aurelio Garcia during his terms as president (2003 – 2011). Garcia was devoted to socialism, while Amorim looked for a way to get Brazil closer to the dream of becoming a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council.
Jair Bolsonaro also brings heavy baggage. Scientific ineptitude and skepticism during the pandemic generated negative headlines around the world as the death toll rose in Brazil. Until the arrival of Carlos França, at the head of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the famous Itamaraty had been managed in an amateurish and childish way by his predecessor, Ernesto Araujo. Draft alliances with Hungary and Poland were presented in a surreal and irrelevant fashion. A strong approach to former U.S. President Donald Trump damaged the relationship with current President Joe Biden, when Bolsonaro challenged the results of the U.S. election.
Regardless of who wins the presidential election in Brazil, the world that Bolsonaro or Lula will have to deal with will be even more complex than it is today. Rarely have we seen such a convergence of issues with a direct impact on Brazil, putting numerous national interests at risk.
Brazil and China
China is experiencing a new and worrying situation. In a few weeks, Xi Jinping will be crowned the country’s leader for the third time. Economic growth is low and worrying (by Chinese standards); there are growing rivalries within the party (between ideological factions and also between geographical factions) plus tensions with the United States, Australia, NATO, Taiwan, and others. For Brazil, what goes on in China is of paramount importance. Trade dependence means that the risk of a Chinese slowdown has a direct impact on Brazil, with the risk of causing a serious crisis.
China’s goal is to increase the number of suppliers – taking into account logistical variations – of every product that is considered strategic for the country. China is already considering seeking alternatives for importing soybeans and iron ore. In relation to soy, the search is at a more advanced stage. Brazil, on the other hand, does not have a clear diversification strategy.
In 2023, the pressure exerted on China by the United States and its allies will divide the world even more. The “decoupling” or “untying” strategy, in which the U.S. government encourages U.S. companies based in China to return to the United States or look for another country to settle in, will gain more strength in 2023. Political tension could drive both the U.S. and China to “demand” a clearer stance from certain countries. Naturally, retaliation for positioning in favor or against, or even for a lack of positioning, could affect countries like Brazil.
The next president, whether Lula or Bolsonaro, will have to pay more attention to his foreign policies. Bolsonaro will likely listen more to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and pull back on talking about what he doesn’t fully understand. Lula, on the other hand, should be careful with the ambiguity of his relationships. In the past, such as during his first two administrations, international ambiguity was seen as harmless by the U.S., China, and others. In the current global context, however, neutrality through ignorance will be condemned and strategic neutrality will need to be better prepared to work.
Even before the beginning of the Bolsonaro government, China was already one of the preferred targets of Bolsonaro’s political campaign. During the campaign, Bolsonaro stated that “China does not buy from Brazil, it is buying Brazil.” With his victory, the narrative gradually changed, but with several relapses over time. In October 2019, after two years of verbal exchanges, Bolsonaro visited China and surprised many of his supporters. In conversations with Xi Jinping, Bolsonaro invited Chinese companies to participate in the auction of oil blocks in the country and told journalists that China “does not even look like a communist country.” For Bolsonaro, this visit represented a 180-degree change in his stance.
As observed in the first round of the Brazilian presidential election, the “anti-communist” narrative is electorally very important for Bolsonaro. With Lula as his main antagonist, Bolsonaro needs to keep the “communist threat” present, to mobilize his supporters. In 2018, due to ignorance of the degree of commercial dependence that Brazil had on China, Bolsonaro launched a logical attack against Beijing, as a way of further linking the Workers’ Party (PT) to communism.
After his first term, Bolsonaro will have to focus his attacks more on Lula, avoiding placing China as a target as openly it was in 2018. The agrobusiness caucus in Congress already sent messages for Bolsonaro to control his tone in relation to China.
Brazil and the U.S.
Many people think that relations between the U.S. and Brazil depend on the relationship between the presidents of the two countries. This is not true. The depth of the relationship between the two countries goes further, encompassing dozens of cooperation agreements in various areas – regardless of the political context of the left or right at the presidential level.
Bolsonaro had a strong relationship with former President Donald Trump, but not necessarily with the U.S. government. So much so that after current President Joe Biden’s election, the Brazilian embassy in Washington had some difficulties in getting along with the new leader. Yet the relationship between the countries will always be strategic for Brazil.
For the U.S., however, it depends on the current situation and context. Sometimes Brazil is of high-level strategic importance, but sometimes Brazil is forgotten and placed at the bottom of the list of priorities. The U.S. government – whether led by Biden, Trump, Ron DeSantis, Kamala Harris, of Mickey Mouse – will continue to look at the world from the perspective of the U.S. vs. China. Therefore, Brazil’s attitude toward China will determine whether its relationship with the United States improves, worsens, or remains neutral.
Knowing this, Brazil will be able to understand the game between the two global powers and be a strategic and intelligent player instead of just remaining in the background of the diplomatic and geopolitical process.
Brazil and India
Many still don’t realize that, nowadays, India is the most strategic country in the world. That is why Brazil should improve its bilateral relationship with India in order to better understand some issues and improve trade relations with New Delhi, reducing Brazil’s dependence on China.
India is a U.S. ally on some issues, yet maintains ongoing dialogue and good trade relations with China and has a history of military cooperation with Russia. In sum, India is at the epicenter of the world. The U.S. and India signed a cyber cooperation agreement a few years ago, which gives the U.S. an important position in detecting a possible cyberattack by China. Additionally, India is part of the Quad, a security dialogue between the Australia, India, Japan, and the United States seeking to increase its presence and strength in the Indo-Pacific.
India is also expanding some of its naval bases in the Indian Ocean, in a direct response to China. It is also important to mention that India is in the BRICS and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, allowing New Delhi to maintain a close relationship with China. The two countries are also involved in a territorial dispute along their border, having gone to war in 1962. Today, the situation remains tense after a deadly clash in the Galwan Valley in 2020.
The history of the military relationship with Russia, where a lot of Indian equipment is Russian-made, contributes to the proximity between the two countries. Considering this, Russia has been trying to bring India to its side in recent months.
Both Lula and Bolsonaro were shy in pursuing Brazil’s relationship with India. That makes sense, as it’s not a relationship that would survive on diplomatic intuition alone. A deliberate effort is needed. Even so, there is an advantage in seeing India as an important alternative to dilute existing trade dependence with China.