Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

How Will Brazil Handle the US-China Rivalry?

Both superpowers are pivotal to the country. Choosing is not an option.
Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro and China's Premier Li Keqiang before a meeting in Beijing in October 2019. Kyodo News/Yukie Nishizawa
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This article is part of a series examining the evolving relationships between China and Latin America.

Historians may one day describe the escalating rivalry between the United States and China as the most important driver of contemporary international relations. As the mightiest power in the Western world since the fall of the Roman Empire, the U.S. is fighting to preserve its hegemony. As a challenger, China aims to restore its imperial might – not only as the greatest empire in the history of the East, but as a rising global superpower in its own right.

Their battle for the 21st century has begun, and – for better and for worse – Latin America has already become a critical staging ground. China seems to have gained the upper hand in recent years as a distracted Washington channeled most of its resources into unsuccessful military interventions in the Middle East, the global “War on Terror” and confronting a resurgent Russia as well as numerous crises at home. Throughout the past three U.S. administrations, the White House and State Department assigned only peripheral importance to Latin American countries, despite occasional rhetoric to the contrary. This strategic inertia has allowed China to overtake the U.S. as the main trading partner of Brazil and Argentina – the two largest economies in South America – and some other countries as well.

In Brazil, a new and pressing question has arisen: How to navigate this growing rivalry?

An array of internal and external actors seeks to frame Brazil’s path forward as a binary choice – that is, forcing Brazil to develop a deep relationship with either Washington or Beijing, but not both. The Donald Trump administration certainly framed this as a mutually exclusive choice. Since taking office in January, the Joe Biden administration seems to perceive Beijing in a broadly similar light. In Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro’s government has welcomed and even encouraged this Manichean view. However, it has met with stiff resistance in Brazil’s National Congress, business sector, and in the Foreign Ministry, where many believe that making such a binary choice violates the Brazilian national interest and reduces Brazil’s leeway amid the intensifying geostrategic clash of titans.

The magnitude and complexity of Brazil-U.S.-China relations are immense. For Brazil, navigating these relationships is not about making a binary choice. It is about fine-tuning the nation’s indispensable relationships with the two greatest powers in the world.

This may be particularly true at a time when Brazil’s economy, stagnant or shrinking for the past decade, cannot afford to alienate large partners. In the trade sphere, Brazil’s dependence on China is significantly greater than its dependence on the United States. Brazilian exports to China in 2020 were more than triple its shipments to the U.S.

Of the 15 most exported Brazilian commodities, China is the main importer of 11, while the U.S. is the main importer of only two. Moreover, U.S. companies are the main competitors of Brazilian companies in the Asian and European markets. And, of the total investments in infrastructure in Brazil – a fundamental part of the country’s continued development – China by far surpasses the U.S., even though the latter continues to be a much larger source of foreign direct investments overall. These numbers reveal Brazil’s deep dependence on China when it comes to structural elements of the economy such as job creation, income, credit and investments.

But of course, trade and business cannot be the only aspects of Brazil’s relationships with foreign powers. The equation facing the country’s foreign policy thinkers is in fact much more complex.

A complex relationship

U.S.-Latin America relations have gone through numerous ups and downs, despite generally positive sentiment and some improvements in recent years. Today’s political classes are still scarred by the history of U.S. interventions in Latin America, often involving the overthrow of democratically elected governments such as Salvador Allende in Chile and João Goulart in Brazil during the Cold War. More recently, the Trump administration resuscitated the idea of the Monroe Doctrine while making threats of military intervention in Venezuela and lending support to Jeanine Áñez’s coup in Bolivia. Even among friends, the U.S.’ record as a dependable, trustworthy power has been put in doubt because of its history of betraying and abandoning its former allies. The examples in this list are plentiful: Saddam Hussein in Iraq, the Kurds in Syria, and the criticism of NATO and Europe, to name but a few. In contrast, Latin American governments tend to view China as both more consistent in its relationships and more prone to boost the region’s economies without staining its hands with the blood of their people.

At the same time, many Brazilians retain an admiration for the Founding Fathers of the United States – particularly for their construction of a nation based on the rule of law, the unequivocal separation of powers, democratic solidity and an enviable educational system. Similar admiration is not generally expressed towards China, in part because its long and storied history is not widely known or studied in Brazil. China is seen by the public as a faraway, mysterious, and exotic country.

The Brazilian view towards Washington, of course, is not monolithic. Internal political divisions frame many of the differing opinions on how the nation should interact with the United States. For instance, the Brazilian left is divided into two currents. The most radical see the U.S. as a constant threat to regional political stability. The influence of this group in Brazilian policymaking, however, is practically nonexistent. The second current, with a more pragmatic view, understands that despite having valid reasons to distrust the U.S., it is necessary for Brazil to maintain good relations with Washington. This latter group believes that the two countries have considerable room for cooperation, particularly in the fields of human rights, education, trade, and the environment.

We can identify two distinct views on the political right as well. The first, a minority position, claims that the subordination of Brazilian interests to those of the U.S. during the Cold War saved Brazil from “communism” and domestic subversive elements – ostensibly including in that group anyone who opposed Brazil’s authoritarian military regime. Juracy Magalhães, a well-known conservative politician in Brasília and foreign minister under the military regime, had a famous phrase that is sometimes still invoked by adherents of this belief: “What is good for the U.S. is good for Brazil.” Today, the most prominent proponents of these sentiments are President Jair Bolsonaro and his supporters. For them, a close and friendly relationship between Brasília and Washington is not enough. They believe Brazil should instead pledge unconditional alignment to the U.S. policy, something Bolsonaro sought to create while Trump was in office.

The less radical viewpoint found on the Brazilian right – and, I believe, the more commonly held one, frames the relationship with the U.S. as a source of prosperity, opportunity, and development, but still tends to harbor some reticence about the supercilious behavior of the U.S. towards developing countries. Adherents to such a view tend to favor a close bilateral relationship, but not one of automatic and unconditional alignment with Washington.

Critically, the radicals on the left and the right alike constitute only a minority. Taken together, those who prefer unconditional alignment and those who advocate for staunch U.S. containment may represent the views of less than a fifth of the Brazilian population. This minority can be noisy and disruptive, though. The right-wing extremists were able to gain decisive influence in the decision-making process, as we have seen under the Bolsonaro administration and in the beginning of the military cycle inaugurated in 1964. The other two subgroups, more realistic and pragmatic, represent the majority viewpoint of those who find themselves on the right and the left of the political spectrum. The more moderate positions are even stronger in the most influential segments of Brazilian society, such as the private sector, parliamentarians, the military, diplomats, journalists, academics, scientists and public intellectuals. This is not a guarantee that a more moderate view will always prevail, but it is a powerful undercurrent force that should be reckoned with.

Global stage

For Brazilian state institutions, whose raison d’être involves upholding the country’s national interest, the current majority assessment holds that Brazil should not treat the two relationships as mutually exclusive – now or in the future. Any effort to determine a possible preference between the U.S. and China should be based on past practical experiences, objective data, and the treatment of Brazil by each power.

In the view of the Brazilian diplomatic corps, for example, the relationship between Brasília and Washington over the last 20 years has not lived up to expectations. During this period, Brazil has waited for a recognition that has never materialized. The U.S. has consistently supported rivals against Brazilian candidates in elections to multilateral forums such as the WTO and FAO. The Chinese, on the other hand, offered their votes to the Brazilian candidates in these elections. Furthermore, U.S. support for Japan and Germany, and more recently India, to hold permanent seats on the United Nations Security Council in a hypothetical reform has disappointed Brazilian diplomats. Brazil’s own aspirations for such a position were never recognized or supported by the United States. In the Brazilian view, this unequal treatment constitutes a reminder that the United States does not consider Brazil to be a power worth respecting.

Although China has never expressed explicit support for Brazilian claims to become a permanent member of the UN Security Council, Beijing has sought to treat Brazil as a rising power comparable to China – even when China is undoubtedly the more powerful nation. The Chinese establishment, in the last 20 years, has been able to more accurately understand how the hearts and minds of Brazilian public agents work. This is not to say that China never practices protectionist measures or blocks Brazilian interests, but the way in which these actions are carried out and the language used to express them are important. The experience of high-level diplomatic missions to Beijing tends to be more respectful and honorable when compared to the treatment offered by Washington – especially when considering the latter’s far more ceremonious conduct towards officials from nations such as India. Deepening diplomatic connections between Brazil and China are reflected in the frequent high-level interactions between the two countries as well. In the last 20 years, the number of Brazilian head of state missions to Beijing was at least double the number of missions to Washington.

Washington’s hesitation to endorse Brazil’s accession to the OECD is an additional example, and another instance appeared when the Bolsonaro administration attempted to support a Brazilian candidate for the presidency of the Inter-American Development Bank. This move was unsuccessful because the United States chose to support Mauricio Claver-Carone, Donald Trump’s candidate for the regional forum. In the view of the Brazilian diplomatic community, this was an unmistakable sign that the U.S. did not have much interest in supporting even the most pro-U.S. Brazilian government in history. The move to support Claver-Carone not only undermined Brazilian regional leadership in the Latin American context, but also reignited the classic distrust of the region’s countries towards the United States.

5G conundrum

Another important factor is the incessant pressure that Washington has placed on Brazil and other countries to disallow Huawei’s participation in the bidding process for 5G networks. Following such commands would completely ruin Brazil’s relationship with China. Not to mention that Washington’s warnings of Chinese espionage and data theft – risks that Brazil could potentially be exposed to – seem wildly hypocritical in the face of the U.S. espionage operation against the former Brazilian president, Dilma Rousseff, revealed to the public in 2013. This pressure and the hypocritical argument used to justify it have seriously damaged the U.S.-Brazil diplomatic relationship, in the eyes of Brazilian establishment officials.

This is not to say that past and present Chinese misdeeds are ignored in Brazil. Brazilians certainly view the Chinese government as authoritarian, a regime that engages in serious persecution of minorities and violates the sovereignty of its neighbors. Many Brazilians know that Beijing may have not-so-friendly policies toward Africa (the so-called debt trap) and has supported the Maduro regime, albeit not as decisively as Russia. However, in the Brazilian view, the Chinese government has not tended to invoke moralistic, holier-than-thou rhetoric in the same way the U.S. often has. Despite China’s flaws, Brazilian leaders believe today that they can maintain a pragmatic stance towards Beijing – a decision motivated by much of the same pragmatism that leads Washington to defend allied dictatorships in the Middle East in order to safeguard U.S. economic and political interests.

It is important to remember that Brazil has always offered unwavering solidarity in the most heart-wrenching moments of American national life, such as the Second World War and the terrorist attacks of September 11. Brazil fought with the Allies with Brazilian soldiers serving alongside American troops in the fight against Nazi forces in Italy. Military cooperation with the U.S. and its allies has long been a cornerstone of Brazilian doctrine. In the eyes of the Brazilian military, the alignment of interests with the U.S. for defense cooperation is infinitely greater than that between Brazil and other powers such as China and Russia. Partnership with these strategic rivals of the U.S. is extremely limited – and even during left-leaning Brazilian governments, this preference remained unchanged.

The U.S. Senate recently passed a unique bipartisan bill – the Innovation and Competition Act – designed to combat China’s growing economic influence around the world. But Washington’s new strategy could also benefit from incorporating a renewed emphasis on Latin America – and especially the largest economy in the region, Brazil. Increasing the bilateral trade between the two countries is certainly possible, but it will ultimately depend on how the U.S. chooses to navigate the issue in the coming years – perhaps, for instance, by gradually eliminating commercial barriers for Brazilian goods, helping to revamp Brazilian infrastructure, connecting Brazilian innovation ecosystem with American tech hubs, and providing incentives for renewable energy and sustainable development. 

When considering areas of potential cooperation, environmental issues have often been an area where visions and goals have overlapped. The current situation is an obvious exception, with the Biden administration making combating climate change a vital priority, while the Bolsonaro government has adopted decidedly non-environmentally friendly policies fueling the destruction of the Amazon. But looking more in the medium term, it is important to emphasize that in this field in particular, Brazil has opportunity to cooperate both with the U.S. and with China.

Vaccine diplomacy will continue to be another important factor. So far, Brazil has made better progress with China following the partnership established between the Butantã Institute and the Chinese company Sinovac Biotech. As the pandemic continues to wreak havoc in Latin America, Brazil’s dependence on China has become increasingly evident. The import of input materials to produce the CoronaVac vaccine in Brazil depended exclusively on supplies from China. The Biden administration has recently made progress in expanding its provision of vaccines around the world, but China still holds a lead in the realm of vaccine diplomacy in Brazil and Latin America in general.

In the last two decades, Brazil’s relations with China have evolved in an unprecedented manner. But these trends are not set in stone. It is time for the U.S. to make up for lost time and bet on a closer relationship with Brazil to reverse this situation in the two decades ahead. While China values ​​Brazil among its international priorities, the U.S. continues to attribute low strategic relevance to the country. If this dynamic persists, Brazil will have little choice but to deepen its relationship with the dragon at the expense of the eagle. And trying to impose a binary choice on Brazil, as the Trump administration attempted to do, will not succeed in the long run. The Brazilian governmental and economic establishment will not opt ​​for the exclusion of one of the two most powerful countries on Earth. To do so would run contrary to Brazil’s long history of pendular diplomacy – carefully fostering relations with both sides of an international competition for as long as possible to increase Brasília’s strategic leverage. The best strategy, and the one that respects the Brazilian national interest, is certainly one that involves a balanced relationship between both the United States and China. But the precise nature of that balance will depend in large part on how Washington chooses to proceed.


Kalout is a political scientist and research scholar at Harvard University and a former special secretary of strategic affairs of Brazil (2016-2018)

Tags: Biden, Bolsonaro, Brazil, China, Huawei, United States
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