OPINION: China is a necessity for Bolsonaro’s Brazil, not a choice

As presidents Bolsonaro and Xi meet in China, Brazil needs to demonstrate coherence if the strategic partnership is to advance

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Bolsonaro China

Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro and counterpart Xi Jinping met at the G20 in Japan. Bolsonaro now travels to China as the two countries seek common ground (image: Alan Santos/ PR)

Maintaining good relations with China is a necessity for Brazil, not a choice. President Jair Bolsonaro’s first visit to China is an excellent opportunity for him to alter his diplomacy toward Brazil’s largest trading partner. Although he has abandoned the aggressive anti-China rhetoric he employed during his election campaign, conflicting statements from figures within his administration confuse Brazilian representatives in China and create obstacles to business and investment.

$100billion

the value of bilateral trade between Brazil and China last year (US$)

Bilateral trade was approximately US$100 billion in 2018, and Chinese investments in Brazil are estimated at nearly US$60 billion. These numbers are significant and have grown amid the trade war between Beijing and Washington, as China has purchased more Brazilian agricultural products to replace those grown in the US.

However, ambiguity among Brazilian authorities as to whether Chinese companies will be allowed to compete in the 5G internet auction is causing apprehension. The vice-president stated that they would not be excluded, while the minister of foreign affairs said the issue was still being examined.

There are also concerns about potential restrictions on Chinese state-owned companies wishing to invest in Brazilian infrastructure or privatisation programmes. Such limits have become commonplace in the US under Donald Trump, who Bolsonaro always cites as his role model.

Tensions between China and the US over Latin America have mounted since China’s decision to include the region in the Belt and Road Initiative, its global infrastructure investment programme. Nineteen of the 33 Latin American countries have joined the initiative, mostly small nations in Central America and the Caribbean. The Brazilian government has expressed caution, stating that it wants Chinese resources, but through the Investment Partnership Programme.

There are high hopes in Beijing for Bolsonaro’s China trip. The government, as well as Chinese entrepreneurs, tend to feel that Brazil will be able to identify long-term national interests that will link it to China. Continuity of the strategic partnership between the two countries is essential for the Brazilian economy to start growing again and to overcome the severe crisis that has marked this decade.