Intelbrief / IntelBrief: Brazilian Lula Bolsters Relations With China, Makes Forays Into Geopolitics
Ken Ishii/Pool Photo via AP
While his election last year was cheered by international observers worried about the spread of right-wing autocracy, Brazilian President Luiz Incio Lula da Silva is now complicating the geopolitical ambitions of his Western partners who would like to contain and isolate China and Russia. In addition to strengthening Brazil’s bilateral relations with the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Lula openly criticized Ukraine’s war effort and US support for Kiev, generating backlash in the US and in Europe. Nevertheless, Brazil, currently a member of the UN Security Council, notably voted in the General Assembly in 2022 to condemn Russian aggression in Ukraine. Given his country’s economic clout, Lula could prove influential among his Southern peers as he takes a stand on the great power conflict.
Economic engine of Latin America, Brazil is at the forefront of the countries of the South. Its economy is the second largest in the Western Hemisphere and is part of an elite group of five developing economies known as BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) which many analysts had predicted that they would eventually dominate the world. markets by the middle of this century. Both China and Russia have made concerted efforts to woo other members of the bloc. China’s overall economic power, coupled with the strategic investments in Chinese infrastructure that are the centerpiece of the PRC’s Belt and Road Initiative, have earned Beijing considerable influence within the group. Russia has also sought to strengthen its partnerships with other BRICS countries after its large-scale invasion of Ukraine severely strained relations with many countries across Europe.
In April, Lula visited China, his country’s biggest international trading partner, as part of a global diplomatic reset intended to restore relations undermined by his predecessor, former President Jair Bolsonaro. During a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Lula signed 15 bilateral agreements focusing on technology cooperation, trade and agriculture. Through the trade deals, the two countries agreed to ditch the US dollar and instead trade in their own respective currencies. Both China and Russia have sought to replace the dollar as the international standard for financial transactions. While in China, Lula also issued a statement questioning the primacy of the dollar in securing global trade. However, Chinese and Russian motives are also undoubtedly driven by a desire to mitigate the effects of US sanctions.
Notably, Lulas’ recent trip to Beijing comes as the PRC is gradually reducing Taiwan’s relations with Latin America. Since 2017, five Central American states have cut diplomatic ties with Taiwan, the most recent being Honduras in March after pitting China and Taiwan against each other to see which country would step in to provide it with billions of dollars in investment. Today, only 13 countries, most of which are in Latin America, the Caribbean and the South Pacific, officially recognize Taiwan’s independence from the PRC.
Nor is it surprising that Brazil has been unwilling to proactively support the United States or its allies in the military struggle between Ukraine and Russia; the last power struggle during the Cold War led to 20 years of Brazilian suffering under a US-backed military dictatorship. Nearly 500 people disappeared or were killed under the regime, with at least 50,000 tortured and around 100,000 detained. Lula has also been predisposed to neutrality when it comes to international conflicts, dating back to his previous terms. However, Lula went so far as to suggest that the two warring countries are responsible for the continued violence, reflecting a general fusion of some far-right and far-left leaders around pro-Russian stances. This stance, however, drew opprobrium, and he has since tried to backtrack by condemning Russia’s violation of Ukrainian territorial sovereignty. Nevertheless, Lula also called on the United States and Europe to stop supplying arms to Ukraine, arguing that they are prolonging the war, and suggested that the conflict could be resolved if Ukraine ceded crime to Russia.
At the same time, Lula tried to position Brazil as part of a coalition of neutral countries that are serious about negotiating a possible peace agreement. Such a coalition would include China, which issued a vague position paper in February calling for a political settlement of the conflict without laying out clear ways to achieve peace. In March, Lulas’s foreign policy adviser met Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow to discuss the prospects for peace, and Brazil last month hosted Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who welcomed the stance. of Lulas on the matter. During his call with President Zelenskyy, Lula discussed the ongoing war and the pursuit of peace, and expressed his willingness to accept the Ukrainian President’s invitation to Kyiv after consideration at the appropriate time.
These recent events are surely disappointing to Western observers who hoped that Brazil would gravitate more closely to the West after seemingly rejecting the reactionary and isolating tendencies of its previous administration. While the United States views Brazil as an essential partner in the fight against climate change and US President Joe Biden even invited Lula to the White House in February, the spokesperson for the United States National Security Council United, John Kirby, didn’t mince words when he recently accused Lula of repeating Russian and Chinese propaganda.
Still, it is perhaps premature to doubt Lulas’s sincerity when he says he wants to strike a balance between the West and its geopolitical competitors, even if early appearances suggest he leans toward autocrats. After all, from a purely economic point of view, the United States is an irreplaceable partner for the time being. While China may be Brazil’s largest trading partner, the United States has remained either its largest (according to the Brazilian Central Bank) or its second largest (according to the International Monetary Fund behind the Netherlands) source of foreign direct investment in 2020. Beyond climate change, where Brazil plays a vital role as protector of the Amazon rainforest, Lula also recognized other important common interests that his country shares with the United States. United, including the fight against far-right extremism. Yet, if Lulas’ tenure is meant to mark a turning point for Brazil’s international relations, he will need to correct course if he hopes to find a balance that allows him to reap Chinese economic benefits and play a role in international diplomacy without alienate Washington DC.
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