China-Brazil strategic partnership: Demystifying the relationship

  • Shaheli Das
 Rousseff, Li, CHina, Brazil

Former Brazilian President Rousseff receiving Chinese PM Li

Source: Wikipedia

As it assumes the BRICS presidency in 2017, China’s strategic partnership with Brazil – its fellow member in the bloc – comes into focus. Although the nature of China’s ties with the member nations in the BRICS group has been a subject of much deliberation, the country’s strategic partnership with Brazil is a seldom discussed issue.

China’s association with Brazil is distinctly different from that of the other BRICS members like Russia and India. Brazil is the largest developing nation in the Western hemisphere, and China is the largest developing country in the world. Geographically, Brazil is distant from China, sharing no historical conflict, security threats or territorial disputes.

The two countries established formal diplomatic ties in 1974, but the relationship was elevated to a strategic partnership in 1993 and in 2004 into an “all weather strategic partnership” – one in which China would extend its support to its partner in any and every condition.

As one of the largest developing countries with an emerging market economy in the Western Hemisphere, Brazil was the first Latin American nation to foster a comprehensive strategic partnership with China.

Further, these two developing nations have cooperated at several international multilateral platforms such as the United Nations, BASIC (Brazil, South Africa, India and China), BRICS and G20.

Although the United States and Europe were Brazil’s prioritised traditional partners, in 1999 the country underwent a significant developmental and financial crisis which led then Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso to revamp the country’s foreign policy agenda.

He underscored trade diversification and development of commercial collaboration with major developing nations as the primary objectives of the country. A further shift took place under the leadership of President Lula da Silva, who preferred cultivating robust ties with China.

New world order?

This was essentially because closer ties with Beijing would enable Brazil to fulfil its ambition of establishing a multipolar world order, instituting a developing country coalition in chief multilateral institutions, promoting South-South cooperation, and enhancing the country’s autonomy in international politics.

China’s interaction with Brazil, on the other hand,is shaped by a number of interrelated as well as conflicting factors.

Domestically, China is making an endeavour to manoeuvre its economy to a ‘new normal’ of a slower but a sustainable growth. To sustain its economic development the country requires natural resources. Further, China has to feed a large population, for which it needs to import primary and agricultural food products from Brazil.

Brazil’s vast natural resources, in this context, are key to China’s economy

On a global scale, China is interested in fomenting South-South cooperation which would allow it establish a strong network of allies that would act as a counter-force to US dominance.

China wants to promote its image as a responsible stakeholder by investing in and offering assistance to fellow developing nations, as well as raising issues of global governance at various multilateral platforms.

Economic collaboration with Brazil becomes even more so a constructive imperative for China when one considers the gradual decline of the Monroe doctrine articulated by US President James Monroe in 1823, which asserted Washington’s hegemony over its southern neighborhood by telling other powers of the time to stay out

With that in mind, and given China’s growing penetration in the Latin American region – and the fact that Brazil and China are strategic partners, the two powers may stake out positions that are largely unpopular to the West.

This strategic partnership would enable China to wield decisive influence in the Latin American region, facilitating the institution of a China-Latin American Cooperation Forum as well as deepening China’s cooperative partnership with the countries of the region.

In fact, with the support of several Latin American nations, including Brazil, China has secured an observer status in the Organization of American States and membership in the Inter-American Development Bank.

In short, Brazil has become increasingly important for China due to its political and economic features; namely, the fact that it is an agricultural powerhouse, possesses enormous resource endowments, constitutes a sizeable domestic market and – most importantly – enjoys significant regional influence.

Stressing multilateralism

Essentially, the Sino-Brazil strategic partnership is based on their shared identity of being key developing states, and leading regional players with sizeable geographical magnitude, abundant natural resources and the quest to attain great power status.

Despite several contentions – such as China failing to promote Brazil as a member of UNSC – in their bilateral relationship, China and Brazil have shared interests in terms of promoting their respective economic and political ascensions as well as addressing the issue of global governance reform.

In fact, both these developing nations seek to refurbish the existing global order into one characterized by multi-polarity.

The dynamic of building strategic partnerships has been a prominent element in Chinese diplomacy. However, in the post-Cold War liberal order the meaning of strategic partnership has undergone a clear shift from merely upgrading economic and military cooperation to a partnership that has imperative global implications.

Read Also | Is Latin America of strategic importance to China?

Such has been the case with China’s strategic partnership with Brazil. Both these countries have on several occasions converged on identical decisions to promote the interest of developing nations as well as to tender support to each other at various multilateral platforms. Brazil has repeatedly endorsed the One China policy, supported Beijing on the question of Tibet and has asserted its denial to recognize the Dalai Lama as a political representative.

Further, both China and Brazil have boosted their strategic collaboration on important international issues and in dealing with global challenges such as climate change, the international financial crisis, and to uphold the interest of developing nations.

They have also made an endeavour to set up regular mechanisms of exchanges in the fields of science and technology, energy, space, economy, and trade.

Despite the projection of Sino-Brazil ties as a model of South-South partnership, in practical terms unlike the official rhetoric, the relationship follows a North-South pattern.

North-South mechanism

On the commercial front, although China became Brazil’s largest trading partner in 2009, Beijing conducts itself as the developed North by importing natural resources such as iron ore, oil and soybeans from Brazil and by exporting manufactured products to the country.

In fact, China’s proactive stance towards Brazil rests within the broader framework of China’s ‘Going-Out’ strategy – one that encourages Chinese enterprises to attain assets as well as to expand business across the globe.

However, the trend of bilateral trade has remained an issue of great anxiety for Brazilian officials. One school of thought articulates the presence of China in Brazil’s industrial sector as a “threat”.

The rising trend of export of primary products has engendered a surge of protectionist sentiment in certain quarters of Brazil’s industrial sector.

“We see interesting opportunities for processed food but I don’t really think there is any chance of a fundamental change in the trade between Brazil and China. We will remain basically a source of commodities for the Chinese,” Professor Gilmar Masiero, from the School of Business and Economy, at the University of São Paulo, told the BBC.

In the political realm, whereas China is a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), the country has maintained an ambivalent approach towards the G4 nations that includes Brazil along with India, Germany and Japan.

This is the second example of the North-South pattern of the relationship, where China has acted as the dominant North and preferred to exclude Brazil along with the other G4 members from permanent membership in the United Nations Security Council. This is a clear shift from the typical South-South cooperation and ‘win-win’ relationship that China propagates.

Given these asymmetries in the relationship, the so called ‘win-win’ relationship could be challenged by a certain degree of turbulence in the forthcoming years.

Factors such as the slowing down of the Chinese economy and a waning Brazilian economy have made the economic dimension most important in their relationship. In such a scenario, the rising apprehension of Brazilian officials against the flooding in of cheap Chinese goods in the Brazilian market will definitely be a cause of contest.

This – along with the fact that the trend of Chinese state owned enterprises to constrain the influence of the Brazilian companies in both the private and public sectors in Africa – could grow into a cause of discontent.

This commentary was first published in The BRICS POST.

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