BRASILIA, Brazil (AP) – What a difference a year makes.
In the months before last year’s presidential election in Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro described China as predatory.
Now, as a more pragmatic president, Bolsonaro is welcoming Chinese President Xi Jinping to an international summit in Brasilia, the capital. The first item on the agenda for Bolsonaro, a far-right leader who has sometimes tried to hang the communist label on his political rivals in Brazil, is in a bilateral meeting with Xi. It’s a sign of how Bolsonaro views China as critical to his ambitions to rejuvenate Brazil’s sluggish economy.
Gone is last year’s fiery campaign trail rhetoric about China being a rapacious power intent on exploiting Brazilian resources.
China is, after all, Brazil’s biggest trading partner.
As China expanded rapidly in the 2000s, eventually becoming the world’s second largest economy, it relied on commodities from producers. Brazil, Latin America’s largest economy, shipped soybeans, iron ore and crude to satisfy China’s voracious appetite. Those three products account for more than 80 per cent of Brazil’s exports to China.
Xi’s visit for a meeting of leaders of the BRICS emerging economies (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) is his first to Brazil since 2014. But his relationship with Bolsonaro has already been blossoming.
Just last month, Bolsonaro travelled to Beijing for economic and other accords, including the exemption of Chinese nationals from Brazil visa requirements. Xi received him at his car and they walked side-by-side on a long, red carpet.
“Bolsonaro discovered how important China is to Brazil and that he can do business with China. And he’s more or less happy with that,” said Mauricio Santoro, Professor of International Relations at Rio de Janeiro’s State University (UERJ).
Before he became president, Bolsonaro praised the United States (US) and President Donald Trump. He often said China can buy from Brazil, but not buy Brazil itself — rhetoric that continued for a while after he took office January 1.
The hostile remarks didn’t last, though. Brazil is dependent on foreign investment, especially from China.
Confirmed Chinese investments in Brazil between 2007 and 2018 totalled almost USD60 billion, more than any other Latin American country, according to the Brazil-China Business Council, a Brazilian research centre. Investments faltered in 2018 ahead of Brazil’s election, part of a broader decline stemming from investor caution.After Bolsonaro won the presidency, he took his first trip abroad to the US, then in the midst of a growing trade dispute with China. But Brazil didn’t get caught in the middle.
“Brazil has all the reasons to work with both countries and not pick sides,” said Associate China Director at the Washington-based Atlantic Council Pepe Zhang. “So far, it’s doing a good job.”
In August, amid Western criticism of Brazil’s handling of fires raging in the Amazon, China defended Brazil. Bolsonaro described China’s support as “priceless”.
As Brazil-Chinese diplomacy advances, there are delicate issues to navigate. The US, for example, is pressuring the Brazilian government to exclude Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei from its auction next year to provide a 5G network. The US State Department said Huawei poses cybersecurity risks and that it will review the way it shares intelligence about Venezuela with Brazil if Huawei is allowed to provide 5G service.
The US and Brazil consider Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro to be illegitimate and want him to resign.
China, eager for repayment of the billions of dollars in oil-backed loans it extended to Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s socialist administration, continues to support his regime.