Lula's Visit To China Is Business As Usual — And Pure Political Calculation
Brazilian President Lula da Silva is sticking to Brazil's favored policy of diplomatic non-alignment while visiting China, hoping to win his country all the business and export deals he can sign.
First, he wants to look like a statesman next to China’s communist strongman leader Xi Jinping. Second, he wants to be on the 'right' side in the new Cold War taking shape between the U.S. and China. And third, he will seek investment opportunities and export markets.
Part of Lula's symbolic proposition is to present himself as an international statesman who can re-establish Brazil on the global stage. With the exception of some among the extreme right in the West, most people abroad sympathize with this image – among them, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who has welcomed Brazil's return.
Among the left in Latin America, Lula is seen as a kind of Nelson Mandela, the South African president who helped to end Apartheid. Lula will use his agenda with foreign leaders to reinforce this image and to differentiate himself from his predecessor, far-right Jair Bolsonaro. This will prove a useful communication tool, given Lula's difficulties at home with the legislature and continued economic challenges.
Classic Brazilian non-alignment
Lula's second interest in China will be to use this bilateral relationship to send signals to the U.S.. He is likely angling for concessions from both China and the U.S., following a "bipartisan" foreign-policy tradition that began in the Second World War under former Brazilian President Getulio Vargas. Vargas had both pro-German and pro-Allied figures in his cabinet, but used the country's position to enter the war on the Allied side in exchange for a steel plant built in Volta Redonda, in the state of Río de Janeiro. He also obtained arms and equipment for the Brazilian armed forces.
In the 1970s, one of Brazil's military rulers, General Ernesto Geisel, followed the same non-aligned path. He removed Brazil from a military cooperation pact with the United States, in spite of American protests. But he also signed the biggest trading deal in history up to that time with West Germany, an emerging power, and itself a focus of great power rivalries. The logic was the same: playing off the great powers at a time of ideological tensions, to win strategic concessions for Brazil.
The U.S. is pressuring other countries not to adopt Chinese technology.
Today, the U.S. is similarly pressuring other countries not to adopt Chinese technology – although its warnings on cybersecurity were not helped by American spying on Brazil's big oil firm, Petrobras, and on the country's last leftist president and Lula ally, Dilma Rousseff. For now, Brazil will try not to side with either East or West, but take advantage of their rivalries, as journalist Patricia Campos suggests in Folha de São Paulo.
Lula's third interest is to expand export markets for Brazil, and in particular, opportunities for the agro-industrial sector and for "green" investments from China. The president's visit, which began on April 12, included a delegation of 100 representatives of big Brazilian farms – even though China’s government has said it wants to reduce the country’s dependence on agricultural imports. Of course, this is a risk for Brazilian industrial farmers and the government, who want to make China a steady trading partner.
On climate, the two countries have a similar position, which is to see the crisis as a matter of "shared but differentiated responsibilities." In other words, they admit to contributing to global heating, but they agree that wealthy countries, who have been spewing CO2 into the atmosphere for a good 250 years, should now pay up to help everybody adjust. It will be a significant challenge for the Brazilian government to move from talk to action on climate change.
It may be advisable to avoid big declarations. When Brazil’s former leader Geisel signed the treaty with West Germany, Brazilian representatives said it would yield 40 nuclear power plants by the year 2000. Brazil now has two.
Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, during the presentation of credentials by the Chinese Ambassador to Brazil, Zhu Qingqiao. Audience Room, Planalto Palace, Brasilia
From grandiloquent declarations to pragmatic diplomacy
Grandiloquence has, in any case, been phased out of Brazilian politics. Rousseff made big announcements when she visited China in 2011, but the stated deals came to nothing. The hardest part, certainly in Brazil, is to ensure money flows, constructions begin – and end – and that projects are actually realized.
Effectively, diplomatic proximity with China is useless unless it yields tangible benefits. In Feb. 2020, the Getulio Vargas Foundation in Rio, a development agency, hosted an investment event between the Chinese government and Rio state.
At the time, the Chinese representative said China was willing to invest, but only in "solid" projects. When I spoke with one of the Chinese diplomats, he listed his country's investment interests on the continent: infrastructure, energy, minerals, land, food and water. There are risks and opportunities in these sectors for Brazil, and it is up to state bodies and the private sector to duly assess them.
China is Brazil's number one export market for farming products, and Brazil is the country’s second largest global supplier in the sector. Between 2000 and 2022, Brazil's food and farming exports to China ballooned from a little under $2 billion to almost $90 billion (adjusted for inflation).
Relations between the two countries are far bigger and more important than big words or ideological naivete, whether it comes in the form of anti-Chinese prejudices of the Bolsonaro presidency or some of the left's unqualified admiration for communist China.
Today, diplomacy means pragmatism.
*Bastos is a political analyst and China hand with the Argentine think tank CADAL.
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