China , United States and Brazil

Economic relations with China are key for Brazil - but not for Bolsonaro

Bnamericas Published: Tuesday, April 07, 2020
Economic relations with China are key for Brazil - but not for Bolsonaro

The Bolsonaro administration is damaging relations with Brazil's main trade partner, China, to an extent that will have repercussions beyond the coronavirus pandemic.

Historically, Brazil has pursued its national interest pragmatically in the international arena by mediating between adversaries and by cutting deals instead of pointing fingers. 

But true to his campaign promise, President Jair Bolsonaro based foreign relations on ideology, meaning ties with right-wing administrations, like Donald Trump's, grew stronger while he and his aides reserved derogatory comments for Buenos Aires and China's communist rulers, both key trade partners.

For example, earlier this week, education minister Abraham Weintraub suggested on Twitter that the coronavirus outbreak will help China dominate the world. Through its embassy in Brazil, Beijing issued a sharp rebuke.

And in March, a son of the president, Eduardo Bolsonaro, who is also a federal lawmaker, created a diplomatic fallout by tweeting that China is a dictatorship and hid evidence regarding the coronavirus, even hinting at regime change.

Such attacks have raised eyebrows among political leaders. "I don't understand how, in a moment of crisis, people linked to the country's president use a minister to attack China," lower house head and centrist politician Rodrigo Maia said during a webcast with investors on Tuesday.

China became more important for Brazil's economy during the Lula da Silva years. In office, Lula used Brazil's increasing international clout during the commodities boom to strengthen ties with the Asian country, which overtook the US as Brazil's main trade partner and poured massive amounts into the country's infrastructure, mining, and oil & gas segments.

While Bolsonaro's sharp turn pays off politically and even yielded some economic results, like Washington's support for Brazil's OECD membership, the costs will outweigh the benefits. 

"It is clear that China's and Brazil's economies are complementary, while the US and Brazil's are competitors in various aspects," Charles Tang, president of the Brazilian-China chamber of commerce and industry, told BNamericas.

For example, the US agricultural industry is a major competitor of Brazil's farm sector, and manufactured goods enter more easily from Mexico, where they are produced in the so-called maquiladora system that ties into the US economy.

Even before the pandemic, the Bolsonaro administration struggled to kick-start Brazil's economy, leading to public discontent and falling approval ratings. This prompted Bolsonaro to up the ideological ante even more to keep his base engaged.

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