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Foreign Policy

Brazil and the Global Reach of the New Sino-American Competition

Sep 06, 2019
  • Tom Harper

    Doctoral researcher, University of Surrey

As the Amazon burns, there has been a fierce war of words between Brazil and the G7 nations, whose pledge of $20 million has been rejected by the right-wing government of Jair Bolsonaro. This has also seen a verbal spat between Bolsonaro and France’s Emmanuel Macron, with the former accusing the latter of ‘colonial tendencies’ due to Macron’s criticism of the Brazilian government’s handling of the crisis. The fire has also seen calls for a widescale boycott of Brazilian produce. This has been linked to the powerful agricultural lobby, which has been one of the pillars of the Bolsonaro government and has long advocated the conversion of areas of the Amazon to farmland, an objective that appears to have come with the destruction of an area of rainforest equivalent to the size of Hong Kong.

While international pressure on Brazil has become an imperative for the future of the environment, the G7 alone cannot place the most significant degree of pressure on Brazil.  Instead, the two that are most well-suited to do so are Brazil’s two primary international partners, the United States and China, a fact that is complicated by their competition for markets and influence in Latin America.

As Brazil’s largest trading partner, China is in a strong position to potentially influence the country’s international conduct, which has been underscored by how the Sino-Brazilian relationship remains important despite Bolsonaro’s hostility towards China during the 2018 presidential election. This was further underlined by the visit of the vice president, Hamilton Mourao, to China to boost these ties as well as Brazil’s refusing to rule out the participation of the controversial Chinese telecommunications firm, Huawei, in the construction of Brazil’s 5G network despite intense pressure from Washington to exclude the firm. Most notably, the biggest advocates of a stronger Sino-Brazilian relationship has been the agricultural lobby implicated in the recent fires. This relationship will likely grow stronger as China seeks to alter its supply chains in the midst of the current trade tensions with Washington to wean itself off of its’ dependency on American agriculture.

Washington itself has also sought to strengthen the American presence in Brazil and Latin America. This has caused the two countries upgrade their military ties, with Washington seeking to increase its sales of military equipment to Brazil, increasing it from the modest $39 million that it currently stands at alongside Brazil’s offer to permit the construction of American bases on Brazilian soil as well as seeking to designate Brazil as a major non-NATO ally. In addition, the Trump administration has seen the Bolsonaro government as political kindred with both governments as it is characterised by strident, populist rhetoric on the electoral trail. It is through China’s economic ties with Brazil and the security relationship between Washington and Brasilia that has placed the U.S. and China in a strong position to influence Brazil.

Despite their strong positions, it is uncertain over whether Beijing or Washington will utilise this to place greater diplomatic pressure on Brazil. While Chinese foreign policy has taken on a more strident tone under Xi, what has remained consistent is Beijing’s adherence to the principle of non-interference. While this has often been seen as one of the weaknesses of Chinese strategies, it has enabled Beijing to further its relationships with economically crucial states, even with those who have traditionally been seen as strong American allies such as Macri’s Argentina and Orban’s Hungary. It is this principle that means Beijing is loath to exert any significant pressure on Brazil given its new-found importance in China’s global supply chains. Should the G7 push to isolate Brazil diplomatically, the move will likely present China with an opportunity to increase its influence in the country based on its willingness to conduct relations with states often deemed to be international pariahs.

On the other hand, Washington also has reasons for not putting pressure on Brazil.  Washington has seen Brasilia as a potential bulwark against Chinese influence in Latin America. This is part of Washington’s wider pushback against what it perceives to be China’s bid to expand its political and economic influence globally, most notably through projects such as the Belt and the Road Initiative. This agenda has caused Washington to build ties with states deemed crucial to achieving the goal of countering Chinese influence, such as Modi’s India, which has seen the emergence of the concept of the Indo-Pacific. As a result, any condemnation or pressure on Brazil could be detrimental to American objectives in Latin America, for it would present a further opportunity to be exploited by Beijing.

It is the difficulty of placing greater international pressure upon Brazil that highlights the global implications of the current Sino-American competition, which, unbeknownst to many, has influenced developments that appear to be unrelated to Sino-American relations. The current verbal conflict over the Amazon is also indirectly a microcosm of the wider authoritarian challenge, symbolised by Bolsonaro’s Brazil, to the established rules based international order that the G7 represents. This challenge has been present on a global scale with the competition between the liberal democratic vision of the United States and the authoritarian state-capitalist model of China, which has become influential throughout the developing world. It is because of this that the issue of responding to the Amazon crisis challenges the international system and, aside from its ecological consequences, has geopolitical implications.           

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