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China Panics over Bolsonaro: ‘Unthinkable’ for Brazil to Align with U.S. and Taiwan

Jair Bolsonaro, far-right lawmaker and presidential candidate for the Social Liberal Party (PSL), gives thumbs up to supporters, during the second round of the presidential elections, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
AFP MAURO PIMENTEL

China’s state-run Global Times panicked over the election of Jair Bolsonaro as president of Brazil, penning a Monday editorial sternly lecturing the new Brazilian leader that shifting trade away from China to the United States would be “unthinkable.”

The Chinese Communist paper was not brimming with affection for Bolsonaro, dubbing him the “Tropical Trump” after his commanding victory over the weekend and fretting over his “sharp comments on women and gay people.”

What really bothered them was Bolsonaro’s visit to Taiwan, which China denounced as an insult to its sovereignty, but the Global Times managed to convince itself that he “changed his tone” as the Brazilian election wore on.

The Chinese sent a squad of diplomats to meet with Bolsonaro’s top economic adviser in September to ensure the leading presidential candidate understood the importance of Brazil’s relationship with China, a relationship Balsonaro has described as China attempting to buy Brazil out from under the feet of Brazilians.

Taiwan seems to like Bolsonaro’s tone just fine. The Taiwanese Foreign Ministry congratulated him on winning the election on Monday and said, “the government and people of Taiwan look forward to stronger relations across the board with the world’s fourth-largest democracy.”

No matter how suspicious Bolsonaro might be of China’s motives, the Global Times on Monday sought to explain why it would be “unthinkable” for the new Brazilian administration to “significantly replace Brazil-China trade with Brazil-US trade”:

First, China-Brazil cooperation is totally reciprocal. China is Brazil’s largest trade partner and Brazil’s biggest trade surplus was reported with China. In 2017, Brazil posted a $20 billion trade surplus with China. China is also the biggest buyer of Brazilian soybean and minerals.

The China-US trade war has further promoted Brazilian soybean exports to China. It’s inconceivable that the new Bolsonaro government would give up on the Chinese market.

Second, the focus of Bolsonaro’s election was his domestic policies and positions, and diplomacy wasn’t the key point. Brazilian people are most dissatisfied with domestic issues, not foreign policy. The Brazilian left-wing regime’s policy toward the US has been moderate, and there is no strong anti-US sentiment. Bolsonaro’s assumption of power hardly changes Brazil’s national political line.

Third, Brazil is a major power in South America, and China-Brazil relations are equal. Although the two countries have close cooperation on economy and trade, China never interferes in Brazil’s domestic affairs. Out of national interests, Brazil won’t adopt one-sided policies. A balanced and diverse diplomacy is in its best interests. Maintaining good China-Brazil relations also helps Brazil deal with the US and gain more attention from Washington.

Fourth, Bolsonaro has served in the military and in the city government of Rio de Janeiro, and it will take him some time to get familiar with foreign policy. His trip to Taiwan during the presidential campaign caught the ire of Beijing. If he continues to disregard the basic principle over Taiwan after taking office, it will apparently cost Brazil a great deal.

The Global Times rested its case by crowing that since “many Latin American countries have walked away from Taiwan,” Bolsonaro should be able to see that an alliance with Taiwan “won’t bring any more benefits to Brazil.”

Questions linger about how deep Bolsonaro’s animosity toward China runs. Observers like Oliver Stuenkel at Americas Quarterly think the new Brazilian president will quickly see a few billion reasons to take a more “pragmatic” view of the Chinese:

During a visit to Beijing in April, I realized that Chinese analysts were closely tracking the right-wing candidate, who had by then begun to regularly criticize the Middle Kingdom. After all, in contrast to Washington, D.C., where Brazil has never been more than a niche topic, the Chinese government considers its relationship to Brazil to be of great importance, both from an economic and from a political point of view. China’s President Xi Jinping is scheduled to visit Brasília in 2019 for the 11th BRICS Presidential Summit.

In recent years, China has begun to carefully monitor anti-China rhetoric across the world, and policymakers in Beijing readily acknowledge that criticizing China on the campaign trail can be a successful formula to collect votes. The vast majority of those elected, Beijing knows, will embrace a more pragmatic stance once in office, given how important Chinese trade and investment has become for virtually every country in the world. As a Chinese friend and academic half-joked with me in a discussion about China-critic-turned-pragmatist Mauricio Macri of Argentina, “In the end, they all come to Papa Xi.”

On the other hand, Reuters found Chinese officials and senior executives eyeing Bolsonaro with “varying degrees of concern,” particularly when he talks about tightening Brasilia’s grip on the supremely valuable niobium industry. Bolsonaro has been critical of China’s efforts to dominate Brazilian mines, but might be obliged to mute his criticism because China has become such an important customer for Brazilian iron and agricultural products.

“There’s not one economy in the world that can occupy the space China occupies,” former Brazilian Secretary for International Affairs Jorge Arbache told Reuters.

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