In 2009, China surpassed the United States as Brazil’s leading trade partner, but that is likely to reverse with Jair Bolsonaro in power. Brazil’s president-elect, a retired army captain and conservative lawmaker who was elected with 55 percent of the vote, has vowed to end the open-arms approach to Beijing.
Evidently on edge, the Chinese foreign minister on Oct. 29 sent carefully worded congratulations: “China develops relations with other countries in light of the one-China principle. We would like to work with Brazil to update the comprehensive strategic partnership on the basis of mutual respect for each other’s core interests.”
The message hinted at a trip that Bolsonaro took in February to Taiwan, a rebel province in the eyes of Beijing. The trip was the first time a Brazilian presidential candidate had visited the island since the 1970s—when Brazil cut ties with Taiwan—and the Chinese embassy wasn’t impressed with Bolsonaro’s rogue move.
In the run-up to the election, Bolsonaro also warned that “China isn’t buying in Brazil—it is buying Brazil,” hinting at the purchase of firms in strategic energy sectors. The statement further alerted Chinese diplomats, who have since met twice with the campaign’s top advisors to stress the importance of keeping bilateral trade, which amounted to $75 billion in 2017, for Brazil’s struggling economy.
Bolsonaro’s concerns are based on documented patterns of Chinese officials. On Oct. 25, one of Canada’s leading think tanks sounded the alarm regarding China’s “political warfare, [including] bribery, incentivization, disinformation, censorship, and propaganda.” Michael Cole, writing for the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, says foreign-policy observers have failed to pay enough attention to China: “We can no longer afford to regard it as a distant phenomenon.”
Pivot to the United States
Between 2003 and 2016, when the progressive Workers’ Party (PT) ruled Brazil, foreign policy shifted away from the United States and toward China and Russia in the BRICS group.
Bolsonaro plans to radically reverse course. He has repeatedly voiced admiration for President Donald Trump. Last year, during a trip to Miami, home to thousands of exiled Brazilians, he saluted the American flag, and said, “If I’m elected, you can be sure Trump will have a great ally in the Southern Hemisphere.”
The sentiment seems mutual. On Oct. 29, after Trump tweeted about an “excellent call” with Bolsonaro, the president-elect’s son Eduardo, himself a re-elected congressman, said both countries would work closely together against “Bolivarians, Marxists, and Gramsciists” (followers of Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci).
In line with Trump policies, Bolsonaro has promised to counter Bejing’s influence, withdraw Brazil from the U.N. Human Rights Council, move the Brazilian embassy in Israel to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv, and close the Palestinian embassy in Brasilia.
As Roberto Simon and Brian Winter point out in Foreign Affairs, “Brazil’s executive branch retains almost full control over foreign policy, so Bolsonaro can act virtually unchecked by legislators in this area. Once in office, he will have strong incentive to make good on his rhetoric, and foreign policy will be low-hanging fruit for the new administration.”
The change will be far from trivial for the international balance of power. Brazil, the world’s eighth-largest economy, has become a regional leader with enough clout to influence countries near and far. If the Bolsonaro administration realigns with the United States in diplomatic forums, it may begin forming an international bloc to counter the Chinese Communist Party’s long-term strategies around the world.
Not All Clear Sailing for Bolsonaro
Bolsonaro has backtracked somewhat on at least one foreign-policy promise: pulling Brazil out of the Paris climate agreement, as Trump did. This signals that his administration may have to negotiate with domestic interests to achieve a middle ground.
For instance, the powerful farming lobby that supported Bolsonaro’s candidacy are the direct beneficiaries of Chinese demand for raw materials amid Trump’s trade war. Soybean exports grew by 22 percent between January and September, relative to the year-earlier period.
His promise to privatize “at least 100” state-owned firms across the board may also hit a Chinese wall. Paulo Guedes, the University of Chicago-trained financier slated to lead a new wide-ranging economy ministry, wants no exceptions, which includes opening up to Chinese investment.
Guedes added on Oct. 28 that the regional trade bloc Mercosur—comprised of neighboring Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, and Venezuela (recently suspended)—“will not be a priority … We will trade with the world … We won’t be prisoners of ideological relations.”
On the other hand, further complications come from the generals in Bolsonaro’s future cabinet: They are adamant about keeping control over mining and energy firms such as Petrobras and Eletrobras for national-security purposes.
Oliver Stuenkel, a Brazilian professor of international relations, contends that Bolsonaro may have no choice but to tone down anti-China rhetoric, as previous officials have done.
“The vast majority of those elected, Beijing knows, will embrace a more pragmatic stance once in office, given how important Chinese trade and investment [have] become for virtually every country in the world,” he wrote for Americas Quarterly.
Latin America Set for Shakeup
The future Bolsonaro administration also is willing to tread alternative paths with neighbors. To the north, Venezuela’s socialist experiment has produced the mass exodus of migrants, who are pouring into Brazil and straining bordering cities. Bolsonaro’s son has even warned of a Brazilian military intervention in Venezuela to “liberate our brothers … [from] the narco-dictator.”
In perhaps the most stunning news after the election, the administration of Colombian President Iván Duque also is reportedly willing to support military action in Venezuela, now that Bolsonaro is in office.
“If either Trump or Bolsonaro were first to set foot in Venezuela to oust Maduro, Colombia would follow without hesitation,” a high-ranking government official told Folha de São Paulo, Brazil’s largest newspaper, on Oct. 28.
Fergus Hodgson is the founder and executive editor of Latin American intelligence publication Antigua Report. Daniel Duarte contributed to this article.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.