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Relationship between Brazil and China is ‘Siamese,’ says Brazilian Vice President

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – The Chinese government classified Vice President Hamilton Mourão’s visit to Beijing in 2019 as the opening of “a new chapter” in relations with Brazil. Jair Bolsonaro’s government had barely completed six months, and Mourão headed the delegation that reactivated the main mechanism for dialogue between the two countries, the Sino-Brazilian High-Level Commission for Concertation and Cooperation (Cosban), which had been stalled since 2015. By reinforcing, in Beijing, Brazil’s commitment to maintaining the “strategic partnership” with China, the vice president acted as a kind of conciliator. It helped restore the pragmatism he preaches in bilateral relations, following Bolsonaro’s hostile statements to China in his presidential campaign.

However, three years later, the Brasilia-Beijing link remains at a low temperature, short of what would be desirable with Brazil’s largest trading partner. The resignation of Chancellor Ernesto Araújo in March of last year initiated the distension that avoided a greater decline. But it did not silence the echo of political noises, which makes dialogue difficult and prolongs serious problems for Brazil, such as the Chinese embargo on beef exports last year.

On Monday, May 23, Mourão will again head the Brazilian side at the first Cosban meeting since 2019, which will be held in virtual form due to the restrictions imposed on China by the zero Covid policy. For the vice president, who is in his last year in office and has already announced his pre-candidacy for the Senate for Rio Grande do Sul, despite the “misunderstandings” of the last three years, the channels of dialogue with China have remained open.

Brazilian Vice President Hamilton Mourão (left) and Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Brazilian Vice President Hamilton Mourão (left) and Chinese President Xi Jinping. (Photo: internet reproduction)

In a video interview, Mourão acknowledged that “off-purpose” comments from government members have caused damage but stated that the pandemic is the biggest obstacle to a rapprochement that he considers natural due to the “Siamese” economic relationship between the two countries. For the vice-president, Brazil needs to be more aggressive to win markets in China and attract more Chinese investments in infrastructure, which today amounts to only 4% of the total.

The noises have diminished, but relations continue cold. Is a breakthrough still possible in this term of the Bolsonaro government?

In 2019, we had highly significant contacts, first because we held the Cosban right in the first semester, that is, at the beginning of President Bolsonaro’s government, well marking our position of maintaining the bond with our main strategic partner, our main commercial partner of Brazil. In the second semester, President Bolsonaro visited China, where he was with President Xi Jinping. Then we had the BRICS [Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa] meeting here in Brasilia, where President Xi was also present.

So 2019 was a crowning year of meetings between the top leadership of the two countries. Then came the pandemic, which caused great difficulty because China adopted the policy of zero Covid, with severe lockdowns. They practically isolated themselves, with difficulties in coming and going. Since last year, we have been contacting our Chinese counterpart to have a face-to-face meeting here in Brazil. Since the meeting was ours, we offered several dates until finally, it was defined that the meeting would be this way, virtual.

So, what I think is that, as the pandemic goes by, with China no longer in this situation of severe lockdowns, the personal contacts, which are the main thing for the relations to be well-tuned, will start happening again, and with this, the relations that might seem a little lukewarm will become smoother and closer.

Was the pandemic then the main problem?

For me, it was a big obstacle, even for our preparatory work. Everything was done virtually. It is possible to do it, but we have a language barrier with the issue of simultaneous translations. It is something that we in Brazil have to improve. We need to have more people able to speak Mandarin to have more fluid communication. These are aspects in which we need to improve.

The pandemic does not help, but do you agree that the friction created by government members, such as former Foreign Minister Ernesto Araújo, increased the difficulties?

These events did cause some misunderstandings, especially the actions that former Foreign Minister Ernesto was taking and some comments from Brazilian ministers that were totally off the mark. But at all those moments, we tried to keep the negotiation channel open, the dialogue channel with China. If, on the one hand, some ministers expressed themselves in a less than diplomatic way, there were others, like Minister Tereza Cristina [Agriculture], who always did considerable work so that the channels of communication would remain open. And also on our part and on the part of Itamaraty [Brazil’s Foreign Ministry] that works with us, we also made all this effort. So much so that when Ambassador [China’s ambassador to Brazil] Yang Wanming said goodbye, he wasn’t going anywhere but came here to my room to say goodbye. That is, we have maintained a high-level relationship.

What does Brazil expect from this Cosban?

Our priority is the two plans, the Strategic Plan and the Executive Plan, because they have already expired. And all these discussions were held virtually, which also caused difficulty in reaching a common denominator, but both plans are well on track. It gives direction to the relations between Brazil and China over the next decade and throughout our government and to the next president. I think this is extremely important.

Besides, we proposed a more operational organization of the commission because my concern was that it not be a debate club. We proposed modifications, part of which was accepted by the Chinese, and other parts were not, but we have already made some progress, and this will be worked on in the meeting.

It is common to hear from observers of the relations that China knows what it wants from Brazil, but Brazil does not know what it wants from China. Is there a strategic vision?

We are living a sui generis moment in international relations. First, we had the issue of the confrontation between the United States and China, which has lowered the tone a little because of Russia’s military operation in Ukraine. China has adopted a pragmatic position on the issue of this conflict. It is not that it is in open support of Russia, but it is also not wanting to get too involved. And alongside that, continue the US government’s policies with the Chinese government. I have always insisted on adopting a pragmatic and flexible position, on the understanding that we have business with both blocks and that today, the main business we have is with the Eastern bloc, where our best trade flow is. We have to maintain this. But at the same time, we have to try to bring more Chinese investments to Brazil and debate this issue of sustainability.

I see that there should be an investment that marks the presence of China, perhaps something like the Bioceanic Corridor, to connect Porto Murtinho (Mato Grosso do Sul) with Paraguay and then arrive at the ports of Chile. It would be a great move if China came in to invest in this because it would facilitate the flow of our commodity production, which is a big part of the trade that we have with them, and, with this, it would also make this production cheaper. I think that this is a point that we have to discuss all the time. And, of course, as I have already mentioned, the issue of sustainability and energy transition. China has an essential role in the world at this moment, and Brazil, due to its characteristics, can serve as a reference for them.

Is the Bioceanic Corridor on this Cosban’s agenda?

No, this will not be discussed in Cosban. These are investments that are just beginning, but because of the moment we are living in Brazil, with this electoral race that started before time, once the electoral process ends, we have to, if we are effectively winners or if we are not, leave the basis for this process to move forward. I think that this is something we need to sell; we need to be more aggressive in this sale. The other day I read an article in the newspaper “Valor” saying that the Chilean ambassador to China went door to door delivering Chilean products that could be bought online. So I think it is also essential to be a bit of a peddler at this time.

The diversification of exports to China is a long-standing goal. At the last Cosban, in 2019, you said that the private sector needed to “get moving.” Has that evolved?

The Brazil-China Business Council has been vital in this. They did an in-depth work written by diplomat Tatiana Rosito, putting the main aspects on which we have to work to improve our trade flow with China. This work exists, and we have to take advantage of it. There is this idea of Embraer returning to operate in China; I recently had a visit from [Jackson] Schneider, president of the company. I will mention this issue in Cosban, that Embraer wants to put a plant in China again so that it can produce aircraft in the country. I think it is very important to break this issue of being tied only to agricultural commodities, iron ore, and petroleum.

Another permanent concern is precisely the obstacles to exporting commodities, as happened last year with beef. Could closer political management with the Chinese authorities minimize the problem?

That is a phytosanitary issue, a recurring technical issue, because at every moment, some plant, some cold storage plant, is quarantined by the Chinese. There is always an immediate response from the Ministry of Agriculture, which has been extremely agile in this regard. I consider this to be normal in this relationship; it is not something to get irritated about, quite the opposite, it is for us to be constantly doing our job and keeping in touch with the Chinese authority.

Argentina recently became the 145th country to join the Chinese infrastructure project of the Belt and Road, also known as the “new silk route”. Can Brazil follow the same path?

Brazil is not interested in formally joining the new silk route yet, which I made clear in China in 2019. We have a reasonable amount of Chinese investments in Brazil, of almost US$70 billion. One-third is concentrated in the electricity sector and utilities and nearly another third in manufacturing. It is striking that only 4% is in infrastructure. That is why I said that we have to seek out this Chinese investment, showing them that investments in certain areas of infrastructure in Brazil will benefit them because this will facilitate the flow of production and, consequently, the cheapening of the products exported to them.

Brazil and China are part of the BRICS with Russia. Both countries have different positions regarding the war in Ukraine, along with some convergences, such as the repudiation of sanctions. Do these differences have an impact on the relationship with China?

Brazil has always advocated that this issue be debated in the multilateral forum within the United Nations. This conflict surprised us by its characteristics, not because it happened. Those who have been following it knew that sooner or later, the war would break out. But the military capability that Ukraine has demonstrated has caused the conflict to take on other proportions.

I particularly see it as a window of opportunity for Brazil because both Russia and China will no longer irrigate the market with certain commodities that they produce, and we are in a position, in the short term, due to the work that Embrapa has been doing here, to fill this hole that is being placed in the world food security. And China is extremely concerned about the food security of its people; it cannot afford that 1.4 billion people living in the country have no food on the table. So, I think that our relationship, Brazil-China, is extremely Siamese in this aspect. We are great producers of food; China needs food, so we need to work all the time on this issue. And obviously, once in a while, there are political divergences in terms of the international arena. Still, they are things that can be solved with the pragmatism and flexibility that we have to have.

Argentina has expressed its desire to join the BRICS, and China has invited the country to participate in its next summit, scheduled for June. What is Brazil’s position concerning the possible expansion of the BRICS and the entry of Argentina?

There has to be a consensus among all the group countries. It has to be debated internally, and we have not yet reached a conclusion on this. My opinion is that we from Mercosur, Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, and Uruguay have to be more cohesive around our food production capacity. I have a fixed idea that we could be a great OPEC [Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries] for food and thus have much greater strength in this issue of food security with the concert of other nations.

Does the war in Ukraine complicate the viability of the BRICS?

Even though one of our partners in the group is directly involved in the conflict, there is no doubt that we must keep this group united and firm, and this now in this June meeting will be fundamental so that a solution for the pacification of that region may even emerge from the group.

With information from O Globo

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