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Brazil Election: China Sees Bolsonaro—Not Lula—as Anti-Western Ally – Foreign Policy

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Analysis: Why Beijing Wants Bolsonaro to Win Why Beijing Wants Bolsonaro to Win… | View Comments ()
When Jair Bolsonaro won Brazil’s last presidential election in October 2018, an editorial in the China Daily, a newspaper owned by the Chinese Communist Party, reflected Beijing’s cautious optimism about the new leader. Though Bolsonaro had sounded “less than friendly to China on the campaign trail,” the China Daily expressed “sincere hope” that he would “take an objective and rational look at the state of China-Brazil relations,” opining that the two countries were “hardly competitors.”
At the time, the far-right Bolsonaro had a track record of systematically attacking Beijing. Ahead of the election, he had warned that “China is not buying in Brazil; it is buying Brazil” and visited Taiwan, tweeting that he planned to break with previous Brazilian left-wing governments that had been “friendly with communist regimes.”
Bolsonaro’s decision to make anti-China rhetoric such a key element of his campaign was a first for a politician who successfully sought national office in Latin America. Prior to the Chinese-fueled commodity boom in the 2000s, the region’s ties to China had been of limited economic and political relevance. Brazil is a case in point: At the turn of the century, Beijing did not figure among its five leading trading partners. Merely nine years later, however, China overtook the United States as Brazil’s top trading partner, a position it now holds in several of the region’s countries, including Chile, Uruguay, and Peru.
When Jair Bolsonaro won Brazil’s last presidential election in October 2018, an editorial in the China Daily, a newspaper owned by the Chinese Communist Party, reflected Beijing’s cautious optimism about the new leader. Though Bolsonaro had sounded “less than friendly to China on the campaign trail,” the China Daily expressed “sincere hope” that he would “take an objective and rational look at the state of China-Brazil relations,” opining that the two countries were “hardly competitors.”
At the time, the far-right Bolsonaro had a track record of systematically attacking Beijing. Ahead of the election, he had warned that “China is not buying in Brazil; it is buying Brazil” and visited Taiwan, tweeting that he planned to break with previous Brazilian left-wing governments that had been “friendly with communist regimes.”
Bolsonaro’s decision to make anti-China rhetoric such a key element of his campaign was a first for a politician who successfully sought national office in Latin America. Prior to the Chinese-fueled commodity boom in the 2000s, the region’s ties to China had been of limited economic and political relevance. Brazil is a case in point: At the turn of the century, Beijing did not figure among its five leading trading partners. Merely nine years later, however, China overtook the United States as Brazil’s top trading partner, a position it now holds in several of the region’s countries, including Chile, Uruguay, and Peru.
Since then, regional actors have generally viewed China as an indispensable economic partner—as well as a useful ally to balance U.S. influence. Former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who governed from 2003 to 2010, institutionalized the China-Brazil bilateral relationship, most critically by helping to found the BRICS grouping of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa in 2009. Lula’s successors from both left and right continued along a similar path until Bolsonaro promised to take a sledgehammer to Brazil-China relations in 2018.
Four years later, however, China has proved to be the biggest beneficiary of the Bolsonaro presidency. While Bolsonaro demonized China during the first two years of his administration, he also become persona non grata in the West—and began to see his fellow BRICS members in a different light. Ahead of Brazil’s presidential elections on Oct. 2, policymakers in Beijing are far less concerned about the possibility of Bolsonaro’s reelection than their counterparts in Europe, the United States, and Latin America. And, in a remarkable turn of events, China stands to benefit far more from another four years of Bolsonaro than of erstwhile ally Lula, who has launched a new bid for the Brazilian presidency and currently leads Bolsonaro in the polls.
After Bolsonaro’s inauguration in January 2019, Beijing’s hopes that he would soften his anti-China rhetoric were initially frustrated. Bolsonaro was a proud acolyte of then-U.S. President Donald Trump, and several of his key advisors regularly condemned Beijing to strengthen their proclaimed anti-communist credentials. The new president also chose as foreign minister Ernesto Araújo, a Trumpist conspiracy theorist who described the science behind climate change as a Marxist plot to benefit Beijing and warned that “Maoist China” was facilitating the emergence of socialist rule across Latin America. Though the two sides saw some rapprochement when China publicly lauded Bolsonaro’s environmental record during large fires in the Amazon in 2019, it proved only temporary.
China has proved to be the biggest beneficiary of the Bolsonaro presidency.
When Bolsonaro, his legislator sons, and several ministers mimicked Trump’s strategy of blaming China for the COVID-19 pandemic—for example by using the term “China virus” and suggesting the virus was the result of China’s “chemical warfare”—the countries’ bilateral relationship entered a profound crisis. China’s consul general in Rio de Janeiro lashed out against the president’s son Eduardo Bolsonaro and suggested he had been “brainwashed” by the United States. In the end, however, things did not escalate beyond a war of words. Beijing was able to significantly improve its standing in Brazil by providing the country with vaccines at a time when the United States and Europe still prioritized their own populations.
It was Trump’s tumultuous departure from the White House in January 2021, however, that forced Bolsonaro to take a permanent pragmatic turn toward Beijing. Aware that geopolitical realities had changed—and that Brazil would now face near-complete diplomatic isolation in the West—his government largely stopped attacking China. At the same time, Brazil’s politically influential agribusiness—highly dependent on China—signaled that it was losing patience with the government’s anti-China rhetoric. As a result, the Brazilian Senate announced that it would not approve Bolsonaro’s ambassadorial appointments if Araújo remained foreign minister. The president obliged and replaced Araújo with a middle-of-the-road technocrat. (Minister of Education Abraham Weintraub, another leading anti-China voice in Bolsonaro’s cabinet, had already been sacked after tweeting that COVID-19 was part of China’s “plan for world domination.”)
Since then, BRICS summits have become something of a diplomatic life raft for Bolsonaro. Largely shunned in Western capitals for his villainous environmental record, COVID-19 denialism, “anti-globalist” rhetoric, and increasingly explicit authoritarian ambitions, the yearly photo-ops with leaders from China, Russia, India, and South Africa have become the main pillar of the Brazilian president’s diplomatic calendar. The importance of the BRICS grouping to Bolsonaro’s global standing has become even more pronounced with the election of left-wing leaders in such countries as Chile and Colombia—which previously had conservative presidents—over the past year.
A reelected Bolsonaro would face unprecedented isolation in South America, where virtually all countries except Uruguay, Ecuador, and Paraguay are governed by leftists. Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, Bolsonaro has also proved a committed BRICS ally to Moscow, criticizing Western sanctions on Russia and abstaining—together with China—on highly symbolic United Nations votes.
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As October’s presidential election approaches, decision-makers everywhere from Washington and Madrid to Paris and Berlin are doing little to hide their antipathy for Bolsonaro, and it is no exaggeration to say that Bolsonaro’s reputation in the West is largely beyond repair. This fact complicates U.S. and European efforts to defend their waning economic and political influence in Latin America as China’s role in the region grows.
Reelection would most likely embolden Bolsonaro to become more authoritarian and further weaken Brazil’s ties to the West; for example, both Brazil’s accession to the OECD and the ratification of a pending trade deal between the European Union and South American bloc Mercosur—stalled by Brussels to protest Brazil’s destruction of the Amazon rainforest—seem unlikely as long as Bolsonaro is president. Should Lula win, by contrast, European countries plan to relaunch environmental cooperation efforts with Brazil—such as via the Amazon Fund, financed by Norway and Germany—and otherwise resume broad multilateral cooperation that was common prior to Bolsonaro’s rise, such as the EU-Brazil Strategic Partnership.
Beijing, on the other hand, seems far better positioned to deal with another Bolsonaro term. Granted, Bolsonaro is not China’s dream candidate—and Lula is remembered fondly in Beijing for transforming bilateral ties between the two countries. Yet despite Bolsonaro’s frequent anti-Beijing rants during the Trump years, trade between Brazil and China has grown considerably throughout Bolsonaro’s first presidential term, from about $100 billion in 2019 to $135 billion in 2021—a remarkable achievement, especially during the pandemic. 2021 also saw the second-largest Chinese investments in Brazil to date, at $5.9 billion. And Bolsonaro has resisted U.S. pressure to ban Chinese telecommunications firm Huawei from providing components for Brazil’s 5G network. In short: Brazil’s economic dependence on Beijing has never been greater than under Bolsonaro.
Beyond economics, Bolsonaro’s growing isolation in the West offers a strategic opportunity for Beijing to develop a stronger foothold in Brazil and beyond, in some cases due to Bolsonaro’s neglect of his own neighbors. While Brasília and Beijing competed for influence in Latin America in decades past, Bolsonaro’s decision to turn its back on the region has facilitated China’s strategic engagement: In 2019, for example, China temporarily overtook Brazil as Argentina’s most important trading partner. Rather than seeking to find ways to retain lost influence in Argentina or contain China’s growing role, Bolsonaro was busy attacking the newly elected government in Buenos Aires as “leftist bandits.
This does not mean that China has soured on Lula. But if Lula were to win the Brazilian presidency, the country’s isolation in the West would end—and Beijing would face far more intense competition to consolidate its influence across Latin America. (Lula, however, is still expected to be friendly to China, as he was during his first two terms.)
After starting out as a presidential candidate running on an anti-China platform, Bolsonaro has now become—above all—anti-Western. That tendency will only intensify if he wins reelection. And Beijing is taking notice.
Oliver Stuenkel is an associate professor of international relations at the Getulio Vargas Foundation in São Paulo. Twitter: @OliverStuenkel
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