U.S. Indifference Has Helped China Gain a Foothold in Brazil
Even without the recent drift in Venezuela, it should be obvious Washington needs to pay closer attention to security concerns in Central and South America. The Trump administration's focus elsewhere (the Middle East, East Asia) has helped China to gain influence in Brazil, Latin America's biggest economy—even though countering China's growing influence around the world is one of the top priorities of U.S. national security strategy.
The Chinese presence in Latin America is staggering, even without taking into account the Trump administration’s effective loss of interest in the region anywhere south of the Panama Canal. China has been Brazil’s largest trading partner, by far, for over a decade. It has also invested billions of dollars in Brazil, in ventures such as infrastructure projects and raising the financial profile of Chinese banks. So far, at least $7 billion in Chinese loans have been given to the state oil company, Petrobras, in exchange for preferential access to Brazil’s oil.
Initially, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro fell into line with President Trump’s aggressive approach to China. He promised to break from the friendly relationship Brazil had with China under his left-wing predecessors, and as a candidate, went so far as to visit Taiwan (an obvious provocation for Beijing). Bolsonaro’s promises were likewise a signal that Brazil would prioritize its relationship with the U.S. during his presidency.
But despite Bolsonaro’s pro-U.S. stance and admiration for Trump, U.S.-Brazil relations have not gotten meaningfully closer since Bolsonaro was elected. There are several reasons this has not come about.
In practice, Bolsonaro has yielded to the recommendations of advisors, such as Minister of Economy Paolo Guedes, to not alienate China or its president, Xi Jinping. In November, relations between Brazil and China were bolstered at the annual BRICS summit through bilateral talks between Xi and Bolsonaro. Given China’s status as Brazil’s most important trading partner, distancing the country from China was one of Bolsonaro’s least feasible promises.
For Washington’s part, Trump has not supported Bolsonaro’s goal of exporting more Brazilian crops to the U.S. market, though it would mean an increase in trade between the hemisphere’s two largest economies. The reason for this is that Brazilian crops would compete with the crops of U.S. farmers in states within Trump’s voting base. Brazil’s entry into the domestic market would represent an uptick in the type of global commerce that Trump assailed on the campaign trail.
China’s influence in Brazil also has security consequences beyond geopolitics and the global economy. Chinese demand for meat and soy has pushed Brazilian farmers to clear land by burning millions of acres in the Amazon rainforest. This practice is widely thought to have ignited the ferocious fires in the Brazilian Amazon last year. Bolsonaro has repeatedly called for the "development' of the Amazon to boost Brazil's short-term economic growth. But while the rest of the world criticized this stance, China praised Brazil’s environmental record, demonstrating a willingness to stand by Brazil through the crisis.
One area where the U.S.-Brazil relationship seems to have deepened is in arms sales. The Trump administration announced plans to increase joint U.S.-Brazil military collaboration last year, designating Brazil a Major Non-NATO Ally (MNNA) as part of an effort to out-compete Russian and Chinese arms manufacturers in Latin America.
But otherwise, China has carved out a foothold in Brazil. While it has not leveraged that to challenge the U.S. militarily, it is significant that Beijing’s foreign policy in the region includes plans for joint military exercises with Brazil and other countries.
Washington’s foreign policy in Latin America during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries resulted in more economic and political destabilization than Beijing’s has, at least so far. However, that legacy is all the more reason for the U.S. not to neglect its relationships in Latin America now, when its own economic, national, and climate security are all increasingly on the line.
Sarah White is a Research Associate at the Lexington Institute.