China-basher or bridge builder? What can we expect when Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro visits Beijing?

China-basher or bridge builder? What can we expect when Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro visits Beijing?

Economic interests may force populist leader to adopt a more pragmatic tone when he visits his country’s largest trading partner.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro will begin his first visit to China with observers waiting to see how far the once-outspoken critic of Beijing will be willing to build bridges with his country’s biggest trading partner.

The right-wing populist frequently attacked China on the campaign trail, accusing it of “buying up the country” and angered Beijing by visiting Taiwan in February last year.

But he has since changed tack, saying he welcomed Chinese investment and trade just before taking office at the start of the year.

However, tensions linger and a planned meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Japan in June was also called off after the Brazilian leader claimed his delegation had been kept waiting.

Bolsonaro’s three day trip will include a welcoming ceremony and dinner with Xi, followed by talks between senior officials on Friday with agriculture and infrastructure deals believed to be on the agenda.

Analysts say that in a best-case scenario for Beijing he would be willing to sign up to the country’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), or at least show he was open to the possibility to keep investment flowing into the struggling Brazilian economy and protect agricultural sales.

“China has repeatedly invited President Bolsonaro, but has never succeeded until now,” said Cui Shoujun, director of the Centre for Latin American Studies at Renmin University of China.

“He has said some negative things about China in the past, but the visit in person is more important than words.”

“China has repeatedly invited President Bolsonaro, but has never succeeded until now,” said Cui Shoujun, director of the Centre for Latin American Studies at Renmin University of China.

“He has said some negative things about China in the past, but the visit in person is more important than words.”

Brazil is by far the largest country in South America, with a population of nearly 200 million people and GDP of nearly US$2 trillion – four times the size of its neighbour Argentina.

But its economy has been struggling with large public sector debts, high unemployment and low growth rates.

The country’s economy went into recession in 2015 and 2016 and then grew at a rate of just 1 per cent in the next two years.

China has been Brazil’s largest trading partner for a decade, with bilateral trade surpassing US$100 billion in 2018.

China is also the number one destination of Brazil’s total exports in the first nine months of the year, with 27.6 per cent, according to China’s ministry of commerce, followed by the US with 13 per cent.

Exports to China are dominated by raw materials, including soybeans, iron ore, and crude oil.

Last month Bolsonaro tweeted that a key goal of his visit was to boost Brazilian oil and gas exports to China, adding that he intended to meet senior executives from China National Petroleum Corporation.

Mauricio Santoro, assistant professor of international relations at State University of Rio de Janeiro, said major questions hung over Bolsonaro’s trip.

Apart from the belt and road, he said another question was how far he would be willing to cooperate with the Chinese telecoms giant – which the US has urged its allies to shun over security fears – and Chinese state-owned enterprises.

“The general feeling in the Brazilian business community is that Bolsonaro will try to be pragmatic and to do some damage control on his China trip.

“Many people in his administration understand how important China is to Brazil and how that is crucial in this moment of growing concerns about a global economic slowdown,” said Santoro.

Brazil’s agriculture sector will be closely watching the outcome of the meeting to see whether the president can secure future markets for key agricultural exports, such as soybeans and meat, which have become a bargaining chip in the US-China trade war.

Brazil is the world’s largest exporter of soybeans – a vital food source for livestock – and has become the largest supplier to China since the start of the trade war prompted Beijing to slap retaliatory tariffs on US imports.

But the latest round of talks between the world’s two largest economies showed signs of progress and Donald Trump said that China had agreed to buy up to US$50 billion worth of US agricultural products – a development that could come at Brazil’s expense.

“Bolsonaro represents a nationalist right in Brazil that doesn’t like China and is concerned about China’s rising global role,” said Santoro.

But he said the president had been forced to temper his tone in light of pressure from important economic interest groups, such as agribusiness and mining.

“He stopped with the harsh criticism and sometimes even mentions how he would like to see more trade and investment with Beijing. It is not true love, but it is a marriage of convenience,” said Santoro.