Brazil's contradictory stance on China is bad for business. Photo: FP
What does Brazil expect from China?

Brazil’s contradictory stance on China is bad for business. Photo: FP

China has been Brazil’s biggest trade partner since 2009. The Asian giant is the destination of 19 percent of all Brazilian exports, and in recent years a major investor in the country. In 2017, Chinese firms poured a record of USD 20.9 billion into Latin America’s biggest economy. However, China is largely absent from the debates surrounding the upcoming presidential election.

The leading candidates say very little about the superpower, and when they do – as in the case of Congressman Jair Bolsonaro – it is to express a Trump-esque nationalist rant against the Chinese. What is happening? 

Brazilian exports per country of destination

exports countries Mapping Brazil’s exports and imports

Brazilians don’t really know much about China

Brazil&#8217;s main economic actors have very different points of view on China, with agribusiness, mining and energy companies benefiting from the massive </span><a href=""><span style="font-weight: 400;">trading</span></a><span style="font-weight: 400;"> relations &#8211; and investments &#8211; between the two countries. The industrial sector, though, seems to be worried about the competition with China&#8217;s more competitive products. </span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Such contradictory views about China add to the general lack of knowledge and familiarity of Brazilians towards Chinese culture, which leads political leaders to become cautious and mistrustful.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Exports to China are huge, but 73 percent of them are concentrated in three commodities: iron ore, soybeans, and oil. On the other hand, imports of Chinese products are widespread across several industries, and have been difficult competition for sectors such as textiles, toys, and electronic devices. </span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Many important industrial lobbies in Brazil see China as a threat, and they press politicians to apply </span><a href=""><span style="font-weight: 400;">protectionist measures</span></a><span style="font-weight: 400;">, in a country that still maintains quite high tariffs and where </span><a href=""><span style="font-weight: 400;">free trade agreements</span></a><span style="font-weight: 400;"> have never been popular &#8211; even before the current anti-globalization wave. </span></p> <hr /> <h4>Brazilian exports to China</h4> <p><img class="alignnone size-large wp-image-4284" src="" alt="exports to china Mapping Brazil’s exports and imports" width="1024" height="442" srcset=" 1024w, 300w, 768w, 610w" sizes="(max-width: 1024px) 100vw, 1024px" /></p> <hr /> <h3>Brazilian concerns</h3> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Besides economic competition, there also security concerns coming from the Armed Forces, which are enjoying an </span><a href=""><span style="font-weight: 400;">increasing level of influence</span></a><span style="font-weight: 400;"> in Brazil amid the chaos of the country&#8217;s political crisis. Military officers fear Chinese presence in what they consider to be strategic sectors for Brazil, such as </span><a href=""><span style="font-weight: 400;">energy</span></a><span style="font-weight: 400;"> and </span><a href=""><span style="font-weight: 400;">infrastructure</span></a><span style="font-weight: 400;">. </span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">The old doctrines of the Cold War are still strong among generals and admirals, who sometimes feel uncomfortable in dealing with a nation that is still run by a one-party communist regime. They tend to adopt American or West European perspectives that see a rising China as a threat to the global order and resent Chinese influence in South America and Africa as a rival to the goals of Brazilian foreign policy.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">China has strong economic ties with Brazil, but they are not matched by a big cultural presence, with movies, literature or music. Few Brazilians speak Mandarin, even among diplomats, scholars or corporate executives with business interests in Asia. Scholarship programs are not common. The lack of familiarity breeds fear and misunderstanding.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">However, Brazilian politicians cannot afford the luxury of hiding behind a wall. The relations with China are too important for that. What does Brasilia expect from Beijing? </span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">This is not just a key foreign policy question, but also an important part of the debate about the model of development and international presence that Brazil is seeking. It is even more relevant at a time where the United States does not have a positive stance toward Latin America, and the European Union seems too fragmented and divided to propose an alternative. </span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Are Brazil&#8217;s leaders up to the challenge?

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OpinionJun 25, 2018

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BY Mauricio Santoro

Santoro holds a Ph.D. in Political Science. He is currently Assistant Professor and Head of the Department of International Relations at the State University of Rio de Janeiro