Pragmatism to prevail in Brazil's ties with China

Brazilian Foreign Minister Ernesto Araujo (L) is likely to adopt a more conciliatory tone when he meets his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi (R) in the Brazilian capital of Brasilia

Brazil's foreign minister has made clear that there is no love lost for Beijing on his part, but when he sits down with his Chinese opposite for the first time Thursday analysts expect pragmatism to prevail. Ernesto Araujo, a critic of China and fervent admirer of US President Donald Trump -- views shared by his right-wing boss, President Jair Bolsonaro -- is likely to adopt a more conciliatory tone when he meets Wang Yi in the Brazilian capital. Both sides are looking to strengthen a relationship that only months ago many had feared could rupture under newly-elected Bolsonaro, especially in the face of growing US-China trade tensions. But moderates in the deeply divided government have convinced right-wing ideologues --including Araujo -- that "there's too much at stake" for Brazil to turn away from its biggest trade partner, said Oliver Stuenkel, a professor of international relations at Getulio Vargas Foundation. China represented 27.8 percent of Brazil's exports in 2018. "Brazil's economic prospects depend on good economic ties with China," Stuenkel told AFP. "I am confident that, paradoxically, China and Brazil relations will actually deepen under Bolsonaro." Closer ties with China were encouraged under leftwing former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who is in jail for corruption. During last year's election campaign, however, Bolsonaro accused the world's second largest economy of "buying Brazil" and antagonized Chinese leaders by visiting Taiwan, considered a renegade province by Beijing. Since taking power in January Bolsonaro has sought to deepen relations with like-minded conservative governments in the United States and Israel as he pivots away from developing countries. But Brazil's economic slowdown and pressure from its powerful mining and farming sectors, which depend on China to buy their iron ore and soya bean exports and are influential backers of Bolsonaro, have buffered the relationship. "There is an ideological rhetoric, but in practice pragmatism prevails," Rubens Barbosa, a former Brazilian ambassador to Washington, told AFP. "You should not pay attention to what was said a few months ago on foreign policy and the environment. It has changed completely." - Anti-China rhetoric - Vice President Hamilton Mourao, a retired general and moderate in the Brazilian government, has worked hard to repair any damage to the country's ties with the Asian powerhouse. He traveled to Beijing in May where he reassured President Xi Jinping that Chinese investment was welcome in Brazil, ahead of Bolsonaro's planned visit to the country later this year. Mourao said this month Chinese tech company Huawei would not face restrictions in Brazil, defying US pressure to shun the firm because of its links to the Beijing government and possible security threats. "There are tensions within the government over how to deal with China," said Luis Fernandes of the BRICS Policy Center in Rio de Janeiro. But "I tend to think that economic interests will prevail." While Beijing could hardly have missed the anti-China rhetoric, it was unlikely to retaliate against Brazil, said Julia Coym of Control Risks consultancy in Shanghai. "China will pay a lot more attention to Bolsonaro's actions now that he's in office than the rhetoric he employed during the campaign," Coym said. - BRICS friction - Araujo and Wang's meeting in Brasilia comes on the eve of a wider talks in Rio with their BRICS counterparts from Russia, India and South Africa. A summit of the leaders of the BRICS nations is planned for November in Brasilia. While the deteriorating situation in Venezuela is expected to be discussed, deep divisions among the emerging economies over how to respond to the crisis is likely to prevent a strong declaration on the issue. Brazil is among more than 50 countries that recognize Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido as the legitimate acting president. China and Russia still support Nicolas Maduro's government. "This could start to be a factor that increases friction between BRICS members," said Carlos Gustavo Poggio of Brazilian university FAAP. Some analysts see Brazil's ties with China is the main reason it has remained in the BRICS, even as the group's relevance has been questioned in recent years. "If they were to walk away so abruptly I think it would create an unnecessary crisis with Beijing," said Brian Winter, editor-in-chief of Americas Quarterly. "They want to maintain a pragmatic commercial relationship with China" which sees BRICS as a useful way to expand its influence in Latin America and Africa.