How Should Brazil Position Itself in the Face of Disputes Between China and the US?

The international scene has undergone important transformations in the last decade. If before it acted discreetly, China has assumed a more assertive position in the global order. Technological innovation is a fundamental element in the continuity of the country’s development process, and its goal is to transform into the greatest global technological power by the second half of the 21st century. This desire is reflected in China’s relations with the world: the Middle Kingdom’s path to technological supremacy is seen as a threat by some of its Asian neighbors and by Western countries.

The rise of China, its technological advancement and the United States’ increasingly aggressive response has made the rivalry between the two powers central. One of the most visible disputes has been over technological standards of the fifth generation of mobile internet, 5G, whose possibilities for new online services, communication between different devices, collection and transmission of large quantities of data, in addition to faster and more stable connections, can have a big economic, social and cultural impact, as they are the basis of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, known as Industry 4.0.

Improved reliability and reduced latency — the runtime between command and action — can enable the rise of a much more connected world, driving the creation of autonomous vehicles, smart factories and cities, and even advances in agricultural production. For example, Huawei created a solution called Connected Cows, whose sensors placed on cows can monitor the best moments for milk production and the place for milking, generating gains in quality and production. The latency reduction has already enabled medical procedures to be performed remotely — that is, Chinese doctors can perform surgery on a patient thousands of miles away with the help of 5G technology.

The change in the U.S.’s perception of China took place after the 2008 crisis. The effects of the crisis were milder in the country because of governmental stimulus packages that prevented the global economy from entering a profound recession. The success led China to assume a new role on the global stage in commercial and financial terms. Since then, its leading role has given rise to small reforms in the international order that was orchestrated at the end of the Cold War, with the creation of institutions such as the New Development Bank, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the Belt and Road Initiative. These new institutions emerged precisely during a period of contesting multilateralism and limiting the capacity of organizations conceived by the West, such as the United Nations and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, to accommodate China’s rise and the demands of other developing countries, such as our own Brazil.

Despite becoming a challenge for the maintenance of U.S. hegemony, the interdependent relationship between China and the United States complicates the “decoupling,” that is, a more profound rupture between the two countries, especially in the technological field. This interdependence has been faced with actions to lessen Chinese presence in dual-use technologies (civil and military) and through U.S. pressure for countries not to utilize technologies developed by Chinese companies. The desire for decoupling, in this sense, at times forces nations to choose sides in the dispute.

For example, under the pretext of violating citizens’ privacy, espionage and data theft, Donald Trump’s government (2017-2020) successfully pressured countries such as Australia, the United Kingdom, Japan, India and South Korea to restrict Huawei’s presence in their telecommunications infrastructures.

In Brazil, there were statements by U.S. government authorities about the supposed negative effects of Huawei’s presence in Brazilian 5G. The United States even created a plan called the Clean Network, bringing together countries that want to escape Chinese “global surveillance” to prevent companies like Huawei from acting in strategic sectors. The United States declared Brazil a fundamental part of the Clean Network and offered loans characterized for national security so that the country could build a reliable network — in this case, without Huawei.

The statement with the greatest repercussion was delivered by the U.S. ambassador to Brazil, Todd Chapman, who asserted that Brazil would not suffer reprisals if it allowed Huawei’s participation in 5G, but that such an action would have consequences for the country. The threatening tone reverberated and provoked a reaction from China. China’s ambassador to Brazil, Yang Wanming, accused the United States of curtailing Chinese companies to maintain its supremacy in cutting-edge technologies, noting that the consequences of the dispute for 5G would define the future of Brazil-China relations.

Pressure from the United States has become a constraint for Brazilian foreign policy, which had difficulties in formulating a position in the face of the internal fragmentation that arose during the discussion on 5G technology: on one hand, Itamaraty followed a diplomatic alignment with the Trump administration, and, on the other, there were interest groups that aimed to maintain good relations with China. The alignment of foreign policy headed by Ernesto Araújo, minister of foreign affairs of the Bolsonaro government until March 2021, meant the assimilation of the Trump administration’s guidelines without considering Brazilian interests, creating contradictions when entering a commercial and technological war with China, our main trading partner.

China-Brazil relations came to be threatened by conflicting posture on issues of trade, technology and, later, by conspiratorial accusations about the pandemic, which was an important element in the radicalization of the Brazilian government’s discourse in relation to China. The scenario was of one complete alignment in the interests of the United States, with the rhetoric evolving to the level of xenophobic insults spread by Brazilian authorities. This position was countered by the interests of internal groups that are more directly affected by the upheaval in Chinese-Brazilian relations, especially in the agricultural, energy and extractives sectors, fearing damage to our exports. In the case of 5G, the efforts of these groups to have the issue dealt with technically failed. Then began an offensive by Brazil against its main partner.

The contradiction in the position of Jair Bolsonaro’s government in relation to Brazil’s interests was so evident that it created conflicts even with his government’s supporters, in particular with the sectors that export natural resources and agricultural products. There is also the pressure from the telecommunications sector, whose operators reject any prohibition on Huawei, because they widely use the company’s tools and because of the increase in costs arising from the possible government decision, which would create the need to exchange existing equipment and negotiate with new suppliers, as Huawei has been in Brazil since the 1990s.

With the publication of the edict of 5G implementation rules, it became clear that the internal political disarray, added to the pressures from the United States, resulted in a contradictory policy regarding the issue: while Brazil maintained the possibility of working with Huawei openly, mechanisms were created that can be activated to limit its performance, such as the creation of an exclusive network for the federal government and the requirement that suppliers follow the rules of the governance of the Brazilian stock market, which favors competitors Nokia and Ericsson.

The disarray and detachment from reality, characteristic of Araújo’s foreign policy, resulted in conflicts that disturbed Brazil-China relations. By placing the United States and China as mere antagonists, Brazilian foreign policy did not take into account the complexities of the international system. Political and economic relations were treated with a high level of interdependence, with many convergences between points of confrontation and rivalry. This scenario makes space for Brazil to be able to bargain with both sides, instead of making wrong choices.

Brazilian foreign policy is not a zero-sum game. Brazil’s relations with the great powers must necessarily prioritize national interests. Therefore, a process of construction of a post-Bolsonaro foreign policy must salvage a position that creates partners with developed and developing countries in a pragmatic and autonomous way.

Rafael Almeida Ferreira Abrão is a doctoral student in global political economy at the Federal University of ABC and a researcher at the International Institute for Asian Studies. Contact:

Acknowledgments: The reflections contained in this article would not be possible without the comments of Professor Marina Gusmão de Mendonça, the author’s participation in the Observatory of Foreign Policy and the International Insertion of Brazil and the reflections from the debate promoted by the Diplomacy Institute for Democracy, with the participation of professors Ana Tereza Marra, Cristina Soreanu Pecequilo and Marcos Cordeiro Pires.

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