The Escalating China-U.S. Strategic Rivalry: Where Does Brazil Stand?

As the ‘unipolar moment’ comes to an end, American policymakers need to understand that a profound recalibration of their strategic approach to Brazil will be required.


Source: NBC News.

The beginning of Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s third term has revitalized the presidential diplomacy that had marked his first two administrations two decades ago. In a moment when the world faces severe problems of various natures, including great power dynamics that increasingly resemble bloc confrontation, one may wonder: where is the foreign policy of Lula 3.0 taking Brazil?

For those who expected to see an unequivocal alignment with the ‘free world,’ it has probably been a disappointment. At last month’s G77 Summit of developing nations in Havana and UN General Assembly in New York, the Brazilian president focused his criticisms on the United States rather than Russia, though he made general references to the conflict in Ukraine. Earlier in the year, the Brazil-China Summit held in April had already sounded the alarm in some quarters in Washington, as the two countries agreed to deepen cooperation in various areas and de-dollarize bilateral trade in the future. Further echoing China’s views, Lula has maintained an ambiguous position on the causes of the war in Ukraine and accused the U.S. of encouraging the continuation of the conflict.

Undeniably, Beijing has become a major player in South America, not only emerging as the region’s largest trading partner but also increasing its strategic footprint. Since 2018, it has run a space station in Argentina’s Patagonia region and is reportedly negotiating the installation of a military naval base in Tierra del Fuego, which would give the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) access to Antarctica and the South Atlantic. In the so-called ‘lithium triangle’—an area in Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile which accounts for 60 percent of the world’s reserves—China has secured a palpable advantage over the U.S. and other industrial democracies through acquisitions, investments, and joint ventures. Of the twelve South American countries, nine have now joined the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Given that China has been Brazil’s top trading partner since 2009 and a rapidly growing influence in the region, some wonder whether Latin America’s largest economy could be getting too close to China at the expense of its U.S. ties. How likely is that to be the case?

Brazil and Non-Alignment

Seen only in the light of recent trends, Lula’s gestures towards the People’s Republic of China (PRC), criticisms of Washington, and ambivalent position on the Ukraine war suggest Brazil may be gravitating towards China. However, a look back at history reveals long-term Brazilian foreign policy characterized by a desire to maintain an equidistant approach to the world’s two greatest powers. From this vantage point, Lula’s recent moves toward China are in line with one of the country’s main diplomatic traditions based on pragmatism, strategic autonomy, multilateralism, and negotiated solutions.

Thepragmatic equidistance of the 1930s, when the Getúlio Vargas administration used the tension between the United States and Nazi Germany to extract concessions from Washington and Berlin; or the “independent foreign policy of the early 1960s, which included abstaining from the vote that expelled Cuba from the Organization of American States (OAS) and reestablishing relations with the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), were both manifestations of this tradition. By seeking a middle ground in the China-U.S. rivalry and the war in Ukraine, Lula wishes to reposition his country internationally as a leader of the Global South after the disastrous years under former President Jair Bolsonaro. If China-U.S. relations are heralding a new ‘Cold War’, then Brazil is seeking its place as the leader of a ‘Non-Aligned Movement’ 2.0.

Broadly understood, a similar international strategy was adopted by the Ernesto Geisel administration in the mid-1970s, when the right-wing Brazilian military regime conducted a foreign policy based on the doctrine of “responsible and ecumenical pragmatism. Although aimed at moving Brazil away from the superpower rivalry, its historical place in the Washington’s sphere of influence meant going against U.S. interests while seeking greater convergence with the Soviets. As a result, the anti-communist Brazilian regime supported the communist-led independence of Portuguese Africa, voted for the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) Resolution 3379/75, which considered Zionism a form of racism, and sought to obtain West German nuclear technology despite strident American opposition. In such a context, Brazil’s pragmatic foreign policy used the superpower rivalry to advance the country’s goals while striving for non-alignment.

Similarly, although advancing Brazilian national interests is the primary goal of Lula’s presidential diplomacy, ultimately this involves supporting the creation of a multipolar world order that better represents the relative weight and interests of developing nations. This constitutes an old aspiration of Brazilian autonomist thought which has historically resented the obstacles imposed by the core capitalist powers to the structural development of the (semi) capitalist periphery. In this regard, Brasília sees Beijing as an important partner in its quest for development and to renegotiate the international order.

Compatibility with China

Conversely, Brazil’s ambitions are largely—though not entirely—compatible with Chinese interests. To begin with, a rising Brazil could compel Washington to direct more attention and resources to the region and potentially weaken its presence in East Asia. Similar to the United States becoming a regional hegemon before expanding into Asia, China understands that its rise to superpower status cannot be consolidated without securing a hegemonic position in its neighborhood. Yet unlike the American expansion, which faced fragile republics with severe domestic problems and an ailing Spanish Empire, Beijing’s regional ambitions are resisted by advanced economies that are intimately linked to the core of global capitalism. In that sense, Brazil’s quest for national development aligns with China’s objectives in South America to the extent that it could weaken American hemispheric hegemony.

In addition, both Brazil and the PRC are staunch critics of the global multilateral financial institutions and have repeatedly called for their reform, which the U.S. has been reluctant to accept. In particular, they have pushed for changes in the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank, as these organizations do not reflect the global distribution of power in the twenty-first century. Although Brazil is a consolidated liberal democracy, its larger goals are distinctly revisionist to the extent that it advocates for the end of the U.S.-led unipolar order. That, too, makes it a natural partner of China. As such, for Beijing, a deeper strategic partnership with Brazil can at once expand its influence in South America, strengthen bilateral relations with a major country of the Global South, and foment a potentially counter-hegemonic regional power. Given that the United States is the principal obstacle to Chinese ambitions in East Asia, Beijing’s geopolitical calculus entails promoting the rise of strategic challenges to its American rival in its own ‘backyard’.

Charting a Middle Path

Though perhaps questionable from factual, legal, and moral perspectives, Brasília’s ambiguous stance on the Ukraine war is in line with its demands for a multipolar world, as Lula has drawn parallels with the Washington-led illegal invasion of Iraq that was met with complete global impunity. Such a stance has been partly designed to avoid alienating Russia completely after Brazil voted against Moscow at the United Nations—reinforcing its equidistant position from the West and the China-led pole. Lula is more likely to denounce the invasion when meeting with Western interlocutors, as he did last February after a after a summit with President Joe Biden, all the while refusing to join sanctions against Moscow and more recently declaring Putin would not be arrested if he visited Brazil—only to backtrack one day later. Regarding China, it is relevant to note that despite the signing of substantial commercial agreements, Lula has refused to join the BRI even though Beijing has been anxious to get Brazil on board for its most ambitious international project.

Seeking a middle ground, however, does not require a completely balanced approach to the two giants, given Brazil’s traditionally closer links to Washington than to Beijing. Because of that, Lula’s Workers’ Party (PT) understands that managing a position of non-alignment may involve distancing Brazil from the U.S. to reach a ‘halfway point,’ so to speak, between the two emerging poles.

With the structural shifts taking place externally, Brazil will continue to use the emerging China-U.S. rivalry to advance its interests. For Washington, it must take note that its persistent ‘China threat’ discourse has limited resonance in Brazil and, indeed, Latin America as a whole. All things considered, while the chances of Sino-Brazilian relations developing into an anti-American front are virtually null, they may nonetheless force the United States to commit more resources to the hemisphere in a time when it is struggling to compete with Beijing in the Indo-Pacific. As the ‘unipolar moment’ comes to an end, American policymakers need to understand that a profound recalibration of their strategic approach to Brazil will be required.


William M. Zolinger Fujii is a political scientist and DAAD Fellow at the Otto Suhr Institute of Political Science and Graduate School of East Asian Studies, Freie Universität Berlin. He has previously served as a career civil servant in Brazil and Japan.

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