Sino-Brazilian relations in 2023: Will Brazil join the Belt and Road Initiative?

Image: Giovana Fleck/Global Voices

During the previous two decades, China has risen to become Brazil's primary economic partner in trade, investment, and finance. But, so far, Brazil has rejected to be a partner in China's main international strategy, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

On March 28, 2023, Brazil’s recently inaugurated President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva will visit the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Experts do not expect the BRI to be the focus of the gathering. The visit emphasizes the two nations’ historic commercial and political ties. From the Chinese media, the meeting is expected to bring chances for the relationship to develop and take on a more strategic character under the incoming Lula government. If proven true, this outcome will significantly impact the United States and the region.

Bilateral support

A single government perspective has never driven China's approach to its relationship with Brazil. Rather, it is a long-term commitment marked by decades-long planning that overflows the four-year presidencies in Brazil.

Authorities in both nations have developed ten-year collaboration programs since 2004, during Lula's first term in office. There have been six plenary meetings in the 18 years that the strategic relationship has been in place. The latest one occurred in May 2022, when Brazilian vice-president Hamilton Mourão met with his Chinese counterpart Wang Qishan.

Mourão represented the Bolsonaro administration, profoundly marked by Sinophobia and a blame game against China. Yet, even with tensions, Brazil occupies the fourth position among the countries that received the most Chinese investments from 2005 to 2021 — even outside the BRI.

The highlights of the new ten-year plan (2022-2031) make clear China's priorities. But it also shows how the two countries intend to project themselves internationally. The strategic areas of the new plan are structured around three axes: political, economic (investment, trade, and cooperation), and science (especially technology and innovation). Furthermore, at the last plenary meeting in 2022, the Chinese representatives said they wanted to initiate negotiations for a free trade agreement with Mercosur, the trade bloc comprising Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay, and the opening of the financial market and services in general for Chinese companies — topics that can also be expected in Lula's visit. 

What is the Belt and Road Initiative?

The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) primarily concerns infrastructural development but has a large soft power component. China works sharp power strategies to mold global information ecosystems to benefit itself. It has spent heavily on domestic and international monitoring and censorship and investing in global media marketing.

Since 2019, the China Media Group (CMG) has formed alliances with major broadcasters in Brazil, including Globo, Bandeirantes, and EBC. The most prominent collaboration has been between TV group Bandeirantes and CCTV, illustrated by the co-production of Mundo China (China World), a 5- to 10-minute China-news section in the daily news broadcast carried by BandNews TV, the Bandeirantes Group's 24-hour news channel.

Freedom House recently launched a report on Beijing's Global Media Influence focusing on a set of countries, including Brazil. Their conclusions show that Beijing's media influence in the country is notable, primarily present in the gaps and vulnerabilities of Brazil by not having enough specialized media covering China and in the strong state media presence, even with a limited audience.

In 2020, Global Voices conducted extensive research on the impacts of the Belt and Road Initiative and China's influence on the civic discourse worldwide. Research in Brazil showed that when agricultural exports to China are considered a danger to local resources, then nationalism and environmental concerns become linked. Populists in Brazil, for example, have used significant exports of Brazilian beef to China to accuse the Chinese of destroying Brazilian forests to meet demand and acting colonially. Nonetheless, as seen in Global Voices’ report, these exports represent the full cooperation of Brazilian authorities and many Brazilian entrepreneurs.

Another research conducted by the China Index shows that China is mostly present in Brazil's technology field, followed by foreign policy and economy.

Lula's third administration

China surpassed the United States to become Brazil's top commercial partner in 2009, during current President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva's second term. Since then, the two nations’ economic connection has become stronger and more stable.

On the political level, however, the last four years under Jair Bolsonaro's presidency represented an outlier in these ties: they were marked by animosity, with the right, even, to the public exchange of barbs.  One example is the episode involving Eduardo Bolsonaro, son of the former president, and Yang Wanming, the then-Chinese ambassador in Brazil. In 2020, congressman Eduardo Bolsonaro made anti-China accusations on his Twitter, attacking the measures taken by the Chinese government to combat COVID-19 by comparing them to the nuclear disaster Chernobyl.

Now, many expect Lula to restore these strong ties. One of the promises might come from Brazil's support for China's Belt and Road Initiative during his visit to the PRC. Although Chinese diplomats have emphasized the Global Development Initiative, there is a specific symbolism in Brazilian membership within the BRI, as it could be perceived as a victory for China.

Regarding commerce, Lula has indicated a desire to use Brazil's clout in the Mercosur trading group to push for a Mercosur-PRC free trade pact. The Brazilian president has also been vocal about developments in policy between Brazil and China. Regarding the war in Ukraine, Lula has tried to push for an international “mediating group” in which China might be invited to play a part as a mediator.

At a recent press conference, Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Wang Wenbin was asked by CCTV (China Central Television) how he perceives the current Brazil-China relationship. He replied:

China and Brazil are both major developing countries and important emerging markets and each other’s comprehensive strategic partners. Since diplomatic relations were established nearly half a century ago, China-Brazil relations have maintained steady growth amid changes in the international landscape and achieved fruitful outcomes in practical cooperation across the board, setting a good example for major developing countries pursuing joint development through solidarity and cooperation.

He concluded President Lula's visit would open up new chances for China-Brazil relations at the heads-of-state level in the new age, making new contributions to regional and global security and development.

For Evan Ellis, a Latin America research professor with the U.S. Army War College, Lula and Xi Jinping will most likely not discuss social justice or preserving the voice of underprivileged communities in democracies. They will, however, discuss two critical issues that did not emerge from Lula's meeting with President Biden: Chinese promises of significant cash on the table in Brazil and a roadmap for political coordination on strategic issues affecting the interactions of nations in the current geopolitical order. He writes for Global Americans:

For the moment, Washington has sought to focus on areas where the politics of the Lula and Biden administrations coincide. The February summit between Biden and Lula emphasized common positions on social justice and environmental issues, including the reactivation of the U.S.-Brazil Climate Change working group and a joint action plan to eliminate racial, ethnic and gender discrimination. Brazil’s economic and political embrace of China comes partly at the expense of the how the United States was publicly left off the table, as witnessed by Brazil’s expansion of agricultural exports to the PRC. This strategy allows the PRC to punish U.S. producers by reducing their exports in the context of expanded U.S.-China hostilities.

This relationship with the U.S. will continue to be detrimental to Brazil-China relations. Yet, Lula is historically a balanced leader, aiming to have more friends in the international arena than quarrels — even when it leads him to controversial support. While it is unclear if Brazil would benefit from a BRI membership, what can be expected from the visit to the PRC is a return to a closer relationship between the two nations.

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