Brazil wasting golden opportunity in U.S.-China feud

. Jun 07, 2020
Covid-19 has driven a bigger wedge between China and the U.S. Brazil could profit from it, but Bolsonaro's pro-Trump stance is a problem. Model figures of Donald Trump and Xi Jinping at Bangkok home. Photo: Phol_66/Shutterstock

On top of imposing a massive death toll, unprecedented economic recession, and a possible “job apocalypse,” the pandemic has once again squeezed Brazil between its two major trading partners — China and the U.S. Marching on to become the world’s undisputed Covid-19 epicenter, the biggest market in Latin America is now a battleground for superpowers’ coronavirus diplomacy — that is, the use of health cooperation to enhance countries’ influence in the global scene.

A couple of weeks ago, the city of São Paulo received 30,000 protective face masks from authorities in the Chinese metropolis of Shenzhen. The supply was used to provide health workers with protective gear in the city with the highest number of Covid-19 cases (73,000) and deaths (8,800). Prior to that, the city had received donations from the Shanghai government and the Bank of China —  getting 50,000 masks from each. These actions of cooperation are part of the Asian giant’s efforts to change perceptions of its handling of the pandemic.

</p> <p>On the opposite side of the issue is the U.S., which under President Donald Trump has adopted an anti-China stance — calling the coronavirus &#8220;the Chinese virus&#8221; and even <a href="">severing his country&#8217;s ties</a> with the World Health Organization.</p> <p>The Trump White House has just sent Brazil <a href="">2 million doses</a> of antimalarial drug chloroquine. While it has no proven effectiveness against Covid-19, it has been touted by President Jair Bolsonaro as a &#8220;possible cure&#8221; for the disease, leading the Brazilian Health Ministry — headed by a military officer with a background in logistics, not science or healthcare&nbsp;—&nbsp;to recommend its use on all Covid-19 patients.</p> <p>&#8220;Chloroquine became the <a href="">panacea</a> of populist leaders, from both the left and the right. But no leader has gambled on it more than Mr. Bolsonaro,&#8221; says political scientist Guilherme Casarões, a professor at think tank Fundação Getulio Vargas. &#8220;The chloroquine donation seems to be good for the U.S. on two ends —&nbsp;it enhances their soft power with the Brazilian government, and allows it to dump a product U.S. health officials have advised against using,&#8221; he adds.</p> <div id="buzzsprout-player-3935258"></div> <script src=";player=small" type="text/javascript" charset="utf-8"></script> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <h2>A major opportunity lies ahead, but will Brazil seize it?</h2> <p>Only on very rare occasions has Brazil found itself in a situation where it can use feuds between superpowers to get the most out of each one.&nbsp;</p> <p>One textbook case happened in World War II, when then-President Getulio Vargas <a href="">flirted with both the Allies and the Axis Powers</a> until the very last second. In the 1930s, Brazil had improved ties with Nazi Germany, which became the country&#8217;s sixth-largest trading partner by the end of that decade. Ideologically, one might even say that Mr. Vargas shared more common ground with Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini than with liberal democracies.</p> <p>Both the Axis and the U.S. were keen on setting up military bases off Brazil&#8217;s Northeast coast — a strategic location for the war in the Atlantic. &#8220;And a pragmatic Getulio Vargas used the leverage to get the most from each side. In the end, the Americans had a better offer, helping to revamp the Brazilian Armed Forces, build a national steel industry, and implement economic cooperation deals,&#8221; explains political scientist Mauricio Santoro, an international relations professor at the State University of Rio de Janeiro.</p> <p>Now, the <a href=";utm_medium=email&amp;utm_source=newsletter&amp;utm_term=200605&amp;utm_campaign=china">wedge between the U.S. and China</a> could provide the perfect opportunity for Brazil to pull a similar move, especially as the local economy is expected to tank in the coming months — and foreign investment will be as valuable as ever. &#8220;Mr. Bolsonaro, however, has pledged for automatic alignment with the U.S., and many members of his family — and administration — have voiced anti-Chinese sentiment,&#8221; says Mr. Santoro.</p> <div id="buzzsprout-player-1078940"></div> <script src=";player=small" type="text/javascript" charset="utf-8"></script> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <h2>The risks for Brazil</h2> <p>For decades, Chinese diplomacy was all about coyness. Under Deng Xiaoping, the country&#8217;s declared strategy was to &#8220;hide its ability and bide its time.&#8221; Its politburo was so subtle and indirect that former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger wrote that &#8220;Beijing&#8217;s diplomacy went over our heads in Washington.&#8221;</p> <p>That tone has changed with Xi Jinping, who wants China to have a more prominent role in world politics. And as criticism of the country&#8217;s handling of the pandemic piles up, Beijing is adopting an increasingly tough tone. The Chinese Embassy in India, for example, described calls for China to pay compensation for the pandemic as &#8220;ridiculous and eye-catching nonsense.&#8221;</p> <p>&#8220;In Brazil, that new kind of diplomacy has become <a href="">even more confrontational</a>,&#8221; says Mr. Santoro, whose research concentrates on Brazil-China relations. Racist comments by members of the Bolsonaro administration have been met with strong messages&nbsp;— with Yang Wanming, the Chinese ambassador to Brasília, holding verbal sparring matches with one of the president&#8217;s sons and his Education Minister.</p> <p>After Congressman Eduardo Bolsonaro blamed Beijing for the coronavirus, the embassy&#8217;s official Twitter account was cutting in its reply: &#8220;Your words are extremely irresponsible and sound familiar. It is nothing but an imitation of your dear friends. When returning from Miami, [you] unfortunately have contracted a mental virus that is infecting our friendship.&#8221;</p> <p>A lack of dialogue with Beijing raises many risks, Mr. Santoro warns. &#8220;If the Chinese government sees no negotiation lane with Brasília, it might go directly to state administrations for business. And that could be catastrophic. States are in a <a href="">dire financial crisis</a> and have little to no structure to stand tall in a negotiation table. That is an immense risk of draconian deals.&#8221;</p> <p>Coronavirus diplomacy has already offered some examples of this bypassing of the federal government. Back in April, the state government of Maranhão pulled an ingenious operation to bring <a href="">107 ventilators and 200,000 masks from China</a>. In order to evade blockades or having the material seized by Brazil’s federal government, the state sent the equipment to Ethiopia, before shipping it directly to Maranhão.</p> <p>To make matters worse, the pandemic has put governors on a collision path with President Jair Bolsonaro. That could create an environment in which today&#8217;s medical aid is used — albeit indirectly — as a way to twist governors&#8217; arms in negotiations concerning issues such as the privatization of state-owned infrastructure companies, or 5G technology matters.

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Gustavo Ribeiro

An award-winning journalist, Gustavo has extensive experience covering Brazilian politics and international affairs. He has been featured across Brazilian and French media outlets and founded The Brazilian Report in 2017. He holds a master’s degree in Political Science and Latin American studies from Panthéon-Sorbonne University in Paris.

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