Photo: Alan Santos/PR/Fotos Públicas

With US-China relations shift ahead, Brazil will have to change its geopolitical approach

Bolsonaro's government built a foreign policy based on a primary mistake: it personalized the United States in the figure of Donald Trump. Good old pragmatism has to come back to the table

In 2021, the dynamics of international politics will remain intense. Joe Biden’s inauguration won’t change that. Even if the United States’ positioning towards China changes, other issues will be at the top of international relevance, directly or indirectly affecting Latin America, especially Brazil.

Firstly, not having Donald Trump as the protagonist of US-China relations could give the false impression that the tranquility of 2016 and 2017 is back. This perception will turn out to be wrong, since the confrontation with China is an issue on which Republicans and Democrats actually agree. However, Biden’s method of applying this pressure will be quite different from Trump’s.

Trump was more direct, put unilateral pressure on China, and had many explicit narratives (which ended up garnering support from a large part of American public opinion). The tension began around the trade balance, but it soon invaded more specific and very problematic areas for Americans. Consequently, the issue of intellectual property and China’s ability to accelerate their technological development through misappropriating intellectual property motivated a severe and relatively successful approach to the Chinese company Huawei, a global leader in technology. In this case, the company was the spearhead and the symbol of the attack against China on cyber espionage and intellectual property issues.

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This is a line of attack that Biden should maintain, but with a different approach. While Trump used the national security argument – compatible with a unilateral approach, as threats to national security on one ally, do not necessarily mean threats to another –, Biden will focus on human rights violations to apply similar sanctions against individuals and companies. 

The Biden administration will follow the multilateral strategy. For him, any pressure on China will be more consistent if carried out with allies (preferably the European Union, the United Kingdom, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia, and Canada). Within the framework of human rights violations for the use of sanctions, the American government will focus on individuals from the Chinese Communist Party, but also Chinese technology companies that disproportionately monitor Chinese citizens.

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China understands that the United States’ dispute will become more complex under Biden’s administration. The Chinese knew that Trump used the element of surprise since a tweet could be posted at any time. But they believe that, however much Biden doesn’t operate with the same element of surprise (since the consolidation of a multilateral approach is slower and more difficult to hide), his measures may be more lasting and comprehensive in the international community than Trump’s.

On its 100th anniversary, the Chinese Communist Party will focus on internal reorganization of the economy and the reconstruction of its international image – strongly affected by tensions with the United States and the COVID-19 pandemic. The search for fiscal balance (given the high levels of debt in provincial banks) and international diversification of commodity suppliers will also be priorities. China understands that its over-dependence on countries like Brazil for purchasing specific commodities is a risk to the stability of its supply chain. This is why a plan for diversification was outlined at the country’s Advisory Council’s last meeting in October. Additionally, Africa is seen as a potential for investments in grain production. The development of more robust domestic output in the central provinces is also considered.

Vaccine diplomacy will be another recurring theme in 2021. The distribution of the product to eradicate the new coronavirus will be the focus. However, it is crucial to consider the effects the vaccine will have on international relations. China believes that vaccine diplomacy may open not only new markets but also calm specific rivals. Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines are strategic candidates for receiving the vaccine, as this would bring them closer to China and inhibit more aggressive narratives against the Chinese concerning the South China Sea.

The Chinese Silk Road countries are also essential since the economic recovery of these consumers depends on the stabilization in the number of cases and deaths caused by COVID-19. Latin America and Asia are also of particular importance since the vaccine may open the dialogue for other projects down the road (mainly in countries that cannot afford to purchase the vaccine, opening the possibility for long-term financing). Although their focus is commercial, the vaccines from Pfizer and AstraZeneca aim at countries divided between the United States and China (Saudi Arabia, for example), creating a counterpoint to Chinese vaccines and Russia’s vaccine, which aims at a smaller, more alternative market.

For Brazil, the world will be more distant in 2021, but no less assertive when it comes to the government of Jair Bolsonaro. In the last couple of years, Brazil built a foreign policy focused on the domestic political environment, voter retention, and intent rather than execution. The two main focuses of Brazilian foreign policy were the U.S. and China, with different approaches and opposite interests. 

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Brazil bet on a strategic alliance, placing itself as the “main American ally” in the region. The country’s primary mistake was to personalize everything that the United States stands for (institutions, history, alliances, narratives) in Donald Trump’s figure. Biden’s inauguration obliges the Itamaraty to adapt to something entirely new for Bolsonaro’s administration: to build a relationship based with those who they criticized, the Democrats. 

We know that Brazil is not a priority for the US under the Biden government. For the private sector, yes. The largest Latin American economy will have to reverse the American perception of the Bolsonaro government’s neglect of the environment, not only in terms of narrative but of concrete actions. Brazil will have to adopt a solid and grounded approach to climate change and, more importantly, convince Americans that it is worthwhile to develop agreements and projects in the area. This is fundamental since the greatest threat to Brazil’s relations with the United States in the coming years is not to become an antagonist but an irrelevant actor.

China is another country with which Brazil has spent a lot of energy in the past two years, and not in the most productive way. Brazil’s provocations towards China have generated nothing but discomfort. The country needs to decide whether to place itself as a critical country to China or not. If the answer is “yes,” the critic role itself involves a more sophisticated strategic approach. 

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Western countries’ two main strands of criticism towards China revolve around human rights, intellectual property, and unfair competition (dumping). If it is in the Brazilian interest to focus on these guidelines, the predilection for social networks rather than multilateral organizations will not generate results. And it is necessary to bear in mind what risks can come from such an approach.

The truth is that Brazil depends commercially on China in a way that does not match the government’s behavior in the last two years. Distancing would invariably involve an alternative plan, targeting India, Japan, the USA, and the European Union. This takes time, so each attack must be calculated. 

Depending on both countries, 2021 will need to be the year in which pragmatism will become the main focus of Brazilian diplomacy.