Putting the “B” in BRICS: China and Brazil


Brazil-China relations can be tracked all the way back to 1812 but ended up being frozen in 1949, once the People’s Republic of China was created, as was the case with other nations as well. However, approximately a quarter of a century later, they were re-established, with Brazil opening an embassy in Beijing and China reciprocating, with an embassy in Brasilia. Needless to say, they experienced a boost in the 21st century, especially in light of the BRICS dimension, with the second BRICS Summit being held in Brazil back in 2010.

At this point in time, China represents Brazil’s number one trading partner, a status quo which has persisted for over a decade. To get a general idea as to how trade numbers have evolved, let’s just say that bilateral trade amounted to a mere $6.7 billion in 2003. A few short years later, in 2009 to be precise, the digit “3” was added in front of the previously mentioned amount, bringing the grand total to $36.7 billion and since 2018, this number has exceeded $100 billion per year.

As those who follow South American developments more closely can confirm, the pragmatic China might have become temporarily worried once the charismatic populist leader Jair Bolsonaro took office in Brazil, especially in light of public statements which revolved around warming up to Taiwan and making it clear that he intends to put an end to the Brazilian habit of being friendly with communist regimes.

However, as time passed, it became apparent that these statements were more in the realm of political rhetoric, with the actions of the Jair Bolsonaro not exactly undermining the Sino-Brazilian relations framework. On the contrary, the two leaders had no issues whatsoever presenting themselves in public together on numerous occasions and the reasons for this let’s call it “victory” of pragmatism vary:

  1. On the one hand, several key members of the Jair Bolsonaro administration did their best to ease the transition to power of Jair Bolsonaro with respect to the Chinese dimension, for example Vice President Gamilton Mourao, by reassuring the Chinese administration as well as other stakeholders that in the end, pragmatism will prevail. While these individuals initially suffered political consequences to the point of being accused of warming up to communists, the accusations subsided and their influence ended up being significant
  2. The economic elephant in the room, the fact that Brazil can simply not afford to lose China as a trading partner. As tempting as the idea of establishing closer relations with Donald Trump’s United States might have seemed, let’s just say it looked better on paper and during Jair Bolsonaro’s public speeches. In reality, how likely is it that Donald Trump would risk alienating rural voters by for example massively importing agricultural products from Brazil? Not very likely, with it becoming abundantly clear that should Chinese volume in these areas decrease, filling that void would prove to be more than problematic
  3. The fact that the average Brazilian… well, simply doesn’t care about China as the proverbial “bad guy” all that much. As such, stepping back from aggressive rhetoric when it came to China came with little real-world political consequences for Bolsonaro
  4. The fact that China keeps acting as a soft power and has systematically refrained from criticizing Brazil, especially in highly volatile situations such as Amazonian environment-related concerns. While the proverbial West has been anything but shy with respect to criticizing Brazil in general and Jair Bolsonaro in particular, China has done the exact opposite by minimizing these accusations and supporting Brazil amid intense public backlash (being no stranger itself to accusations pertaining to the environment, of course)
  5. Even if Jair Bolsonaro would have proven to be a much more difficult counterparty, for example if his China-related campaign threats would have materialized, Beijing doesn’t mind playing the long-term game and understands all too well that in the grand scheme of things, one problematic politician will most likely not matter all that much. In light of the fact that Xi Jinping is not exactly going away anytime soon, his administration can afford to play the proverbial waiting game far more than nations such as the United States, to give the most obvious example, or Brazil in our case
  6. As much as Jair Bolsonaro was relying on support from Donald Trump the politician in light of his strongly pro-Trump stance, this highly-desired support didn’t exactly manifest itself due to reasons pertaining to the interests of the US in general at this point in time as well as the political interests of a Donald Trump who seeks re-election not aligning with those of Bolsonaro. Let us not even discuss his relationship with other Western leaders, which is… well, let’s just say not exactly stellar
  7. The fact that a China-Brazil relationship makes perfect sense as a partnership, with or without the BRICS context. After all, Brazil desperately needs China’s economic firepower on the one hand and on the other hand, it is difficult to the point of impossible to envision a scenario in which China doesn’t find Brazil’s commodities to be of vital strategic importance. In contrast to point #6, Sino-Brazilian relations are perhaps a textbook example of economic interests which simply align, to enough of a degree to make ideological left-right animosities pale in comparison

Is the China – Brazil dimension of the BRICS equation a geopolitical love story?

Most definitely not. Instead, it is a clear example of a situation where pragmatism prevailed. In light of the previously mentioned factors and many more, it is difficult to envision Sino-Brazilian relations experiencing more than the occasional political setback. There is simply too much at stake for such scenarios to be even close to realistic from a pragmatic perspective. While China’s job when it comes to this particular equation would have most likely been easier with a Brazilian leader who is less on the right side of the ideological spectrum and/or who is less unpredictable than Jair Bolsonaro, this doesn’t change the fact that… well, money talks, and Chinese money in our case manages to paint a more than compelling picture time and time again.

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