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What Brazil’s elections could mean for relations with China

Brasília, Brazil

Since 2009, China has been Brazil’s main trading partner, and year after year since, there have been record-breaking figures, especially in agribusiness – a strengthening relationship that analysts believe will continue in the coming years, whatever the outcome of the South American nation’s October’s presidential elections.

“Our export agenda [mainly commodities] is very focused on very basic products,” says Larissa Wachholz, a partner at political consultancy Vallya and a special advisor on China affairs to Brazil’s Ministry of Agriculture from 2019 to 2021. “This ultimately means that the electoral scenario is less important for these sectors, which are quite resilient.”

This does not mean, however, that relations will remain unchanged. Experts consulted by Diálogo Chino see an eventual win for former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who currently leads the polls, as a route to strengthening ties between the two countries. If current incumbent and poll-trailer Jair Bolsonaro is re-elected, the signs are that the government will likely continue to distance itself from China – at least rhetorically.

Business between Brazil and China has continued to boom in recent years, even during the pandemic. The total value of trade between the two countries reached US$135 billion in 2021, a record number, according to foreign trade data.

“We have huge potential, but to win the trust of the Chinese, this needs to be done on a government-to-government basis. As much as the private sector has a key role in communicating with the consumer, the government has a key role in negotiating,” Wachholz adds.

Lula closer to China

Based on his previous time in office, Lula has shown himself to be more inclined to dialogue with Beijing. It was during his government, in 2009, that China became Brazil’s main trading partner, benefiting from the broader international context of the commodities boom.

Years before, in 2004, Lula made his first visit to the Asian country with an entourage of business figures, a gesture seen as a driver of trade. In the same year, during the visit of former Chinese president Hu Jintao to Brasilia, Brazil recognised China as a market economy, a move seen as a vote of confidence in the nation.

“China, in general, has better dialogue with governments of a similar political tendency to the one it has at home,” says Marcos Caramuru, who was Brazil’s ambassador in Beijing between 2016 and 2018 and its consul-general in Shanghai between 2008 and 2011.

Diálogo Chino contacted the campaign teams of the two candidates for information on their plans for relations with China if elected. No response was received from President Jair Bolsonaro’s team.

As for Lula, Celso Amorim, former foreign minister during his government and today his main advisor on international affairs, told Diálogo Chino that if the former president is elected, China will have an important place in his international policy. “We will pick relations up where we left them in the Lula and Dilma governments, with very good partnerships, with very good coordination,” he said.

However, Professor Kelly Ferreira, director of international relations at the Pontifical Catholic University of Campinas, Sāo Paulo, warns that Lula would have to rebuild the ties burnt due to the friction-laden relationship of the Bolsonaro administration. “If we look at Brazilian foreign policy, it has always had some pillars, even during the military regime [1964–1985]. Brazil has always sought to follow international norms, of juridicism, pacifism. We do not make threats, we try to mediate, but there was this rupture during the Bolsonaro government.”

Bolsonaro expected to stay away

Asked about the possibility of re-election for Bolsonaro, experts generally predict a continuity on the business side, but with a colder diplomatic relationship, or a complete institutional estrangement. Since the 2018 election campaign, the current president has adopted an aggressive discourse with regard to China, with statements, for example, that the Asian country and its businesses would be “buying Brazil”.

This rhetoric has continued during his government. One of the tensest moments occurred when congressman Eduardo Bolsonaro, the president’s son, blamed China for the Covid-19 pandemic in a March 2020 tweet, to which the Chinese Embassy in Brazil issued an official response. Other conflicts were driven by former foreign minister Ernesto Araújo and former education minister Abraham Weintraub.

According to Caramuru, the Bolsonaro government’s arrival caused surprise among Chinese figures, with its ambiguous messages. While, on the one hand, the rhetoric was aggressive, on the other there was progress, the diplomat says, pointing to the cooperative stance of vice-president Hamilton Mourão at the helm of the Sino-Brazilian High-Level Commission for Coordination and Cooperation (COSBAN), and the continuous functioning of Brazilian diplomacy.

“It is difficult to interpret the Bolsonaro government. Many have difficulty understanding this dichotomy. It gets much easier if you have an administration [in Brazil] that is ideologically closer [to China]. Business people would be more encouraged,” said Caramuru.

Beyond agribusiness

In arguing for closer dialogue between Brazil and China with a view to expanding business, Wachholz said that the current global turbulence could present a good time for the countries to find new trade areas.

“China is in need of more diverse partnerships,” the former agriculture ministry advisor says. For her, chances for discussion and strengthening ties with the Chinese have been spurned in recent years: “Opportunities have been missed in the area of health [and] vaccines.”

Amorim, the advisor to Lula, signalled that a new government under the former president would open new fronts for partnerships and investments with Chinese actors. “Investments in energy will be very welcome. China has developed a lot of equipment for solar energy,” the former foreign minister said as an example. “The cooperation of Brazil, Mercosur or South America with China in the area of combatting global warming is absolutely fundamental.”

However, the former minister reflects on his experience of negotiating with the Chinese, adding that this is often a difficult task: “I think that negotiating with China is not easy, breaking this paradigm of us being only an exporter of commodities is also not an easy task, even on relatively simple issues, like soybean oil. I am not talking about rocket science, I am talking about soybean oil. It is difficult because the Chinese, quite frankly speaking, they tend to be a little protectionist of their industries,” he explains.

Even so, he stresses that this does not mean there would be conflict in the relationship: “It is better to have a tough and honest negotiator than a soft and dishonest one.”

Environment on the agenda

Eduardo Viola, international relations professor at the Getúlio Vargas Foundation and a researcher at the University of Sāo Paulo, recalls that the previous Lula government effectively controlled deforestation in the Amazon, amid the advance of the agricultural frontier, driven mainly by soy and beef. He believes, therefore, that this more sensitive vision of environmental issues would return under the Lula administration. “This is almost certain because it [deforestation control] was successfully done in Lula’s previous government,” he says.

Asked if the increase in deforestation in Brazil for agricultural and livestock production could harm sales to China, Viola said that, at least for now, the Asian nation sees food security as its priority. China, he adds, “is far from being in a European scenario”, where the pressure for environmental control is greater. “The trend is that China will be increasingly in favour of controlling deforestation, but the degree to which this will affect Brazilian exports is difficult to assess.”

The professor adds, however, that a segment of agribusiness has already internationalised the need for transition to a low-carbon economy, even if this is not well represented in the ruralist benches of Brazil’s congress: “This transformation of agribusiness, in which the incorporation of environmental protection implies higher quality in the food produced, is of increasing interest to China.”

The first round of Brazil’s presidential elections is scheduled to be held on 2 October, with a second round on 30 October, if required.


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