Jair Bolsonaro is the first Brazilian president to criticize China since 1974, when Brazil and the People’s Republic established diplomatic relations. Beijing’s hostile vision shakes a central partnership for Brazilian foreign policy.
China is Brazil’s largest trading partner, the destination for 1/3 of national exports and a major investor, particularly in electricity. Where do they come from and what are the international impacts of the Bolsonaro protests?
Sino-Brazilian relations remain strong economically. Despite criticism from the Brazilian president, trade has grown and investment prospects remain promising. However, the political rise of a new nationalist right that seeks to distance itself from Beijing has introduced tensions in the partnership, complicating foreign policy formulation and causing problems, especially in the context of the novel coronavirus pandemic, which has increased Brazil’s dependence on Chinese medicine. help.
The criticisms of Bolsonaro and his allies against China can be summed up in three main streams: 1) economic, in which he accuses Chinese companies of unfair competition with their Brazilian rivals; 2) national security, in which it is concerned with Chinese control of key infrastructure for the country’s development, particularly in the fields of energy and telecommunications; 3) Cultural, which sees in the approach of China a threat to Brazilian national identity, which would indicate the link with the United States and Europe, understood as part of a common Western heritage, based on christianity. In all three cases, there is a strong rejection of the political system of the People’s Republic.
Many prominent political actors are voicing these protests against China. Besides the president himself, there are his sons, high-ranking military personnel, businessmen and a few ministers and former holders of education and foreign affairs portfolios. These critiques have gained significant circulation among Bolsonaro’s fan base, with social media being a fundamental field for the dissemination of this story.
Social bases of anti-Chinese rhetoric
Brazil had already had a strong anti-China rhetoric in the first decades of the Cold War, when the country did not recognize the People’s Republic and preferred to maintain diplomatic relations with Taiwan. These visions seemed to have faded to the fringes of Brazilian public life after Chinese economic reforms that turned the country into a voracious consumer of raw materials exported by Brazil, such as soybeans, iron ore and oil.
However, the international and Brazilian scene changed during the 2010s, opening up space for political movements resistant to China. The global commodity boom that had benefited Brazil went into decline, amid the 2014-2016 recession, from which the country has yet to recover.
The greater economic dependence on Chinese trade and investment provoked negative reactions from interest groups affected by this influence, such as sectors of the domestic industry (shoes, toys, textiles) .
The resurgence of more vigorous criticism of China in the West, especially in the United States, has also had consequences in Brazil, due to the strong cultural ties between the two countries.
Brazil’s new nationalist right is inspired by conservative and populist American movements and reproduces much of the anti-Chinese rhetoric that was at the center of Donald Trump’s presidency and which is also present, to varying degrees and nuances, in other segments of American society.
Finally, the return of the Brazilian military to a central position in Brazilian politics, following the election of Bolsonaro as president, also had a strong impact. The armed forces have always been more cautious of approaching China, recognizing the country’s diplomatic importance, but seeking to maintain reserves.
Retired captain Bolsonaro is an extreme case of these positions. Back when he was a cadet in the military in the 1970s, the Asian nation was going through Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution and was one of the poorest countries in the world.
However, even moderate soldiers are concerned about the Chinese presence in the Brazilian power sector, controlling key distributors such as Companhia Paulista de Força e Luz and the transmission line that connects the Belo Monte factory in the Amazon to the south. is. They also don’t like the prospect of Chinese company Huawei winning the auction to implement the 5G standard in Brazil.
The pandemic as a catalyst for tensions between Brazil and China
The novel coronavirus pandemic has acted as a catalyst for Sino-Brazilian relations. Brazil’s economic dependence on China has increased, with exports increasing by 7% in 2020, when China’s GDP was one of the few to grow. By comparison, Brazil’s sales to the United States, its second largest trading partner, fell 27.7% over the same period.
The urgency to procure medical supplies – vaccines, respirators, masks – has also highlighted how much Brazil depends on the Chinese to meet the needs of its health system. It has become a political and partisan controversy in the country, with local opposition leaders such as the governors of São Paulo and Maranhão seeking partnerships with Beijing. Authorities in São Paulo have signed an agreement for the joint production of a vaccine between the Butantan Institute and the Chinese company Sinovac.
In contrast, the president and many of his allies deepened his critical discourse on China, blaming the country for the pandemic, questioning the effectiveness of its vaccine, and even claiming that the Chinese Communist Party produced the coronavirus in the lab. It was similar rhetoric to that adopted by Trump in the United States, but Brazil is much more vulnerable to Chinese pressure.
They have made themselves felt and, to a large extent, the Brazilian government has withdrawn from acts contrary to China. It allowed Huawei to participate in the 5G auction, ending a two-year standoff. The foreign minister was replaced by a diplomat who abandoned critical discourse in Beijing (although they also weighed in on other reasons for the exchange, such as its poor relations with the United States and Europe. ).
However, these changes of course have not solved the problem of access to medical resources in Brazil. At best, the Brazilian government has failed to position itself as a priority for Chinese diplomacy. At worst, their actions have exposed the country to retaliation for delays in immunization and other key inputs to tackle the pandemic.
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