Argument

Bolsonaro Placed a Losing Bet on Trump

Monday’s announcement of U.S. tariffs on Brazilian steel and aluminum imports is yet one more reason China may be looking like a better partner.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro shake hands after their bilateral meeting in Brasília, Brazil, on Nov. 13.
Chinese President Xi Jinping and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro shake hands after their bilateral meeting in Brasília, Brazil, on Nov. 13. SERGIO LIMA/AFP via Getty Images

U.S. President Donald Trump’s surprise announcement this week that he would be imposing tariffs on steel and aluminum imports from Brazil is just the latest in a series of disappointments for Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who has staked a great deal on good relations with Trump. Beyond hurting Bolsonaro’s reputation as having an in with the U.S. president, Trump’s announcement will have significant effects on Brazil’s foreign policy and trade relationships, regardless of whether the sanctions go through.

As the most pro-American president in modern Brazilian history, Bolsonaro has put establishing a strong alliance with the United States at the center of his foreign policy from the start. On the campaign trail, the Brazilian leader frequently promised to embrace Trump’s tough stance on China and even visited Taiwan. Brazil’s Foreign Minister Ernesto Araújo famously described Trump as “Western civilization’s Hail Mary pass” and publicly fretted about the influence of “Maoist China” in Latin America. After Bolsonaro took office in January, to show the country’s near-automatic alignment with the United States, Brazil pulled out of the United Nations migration pact, and it has otherwise been a fierce U.S. ally in multilateral forums, radically breaking with Brazilian diplomatic tradition. Two months later, at the White House, Bolsonaro said he was convinced Trump would win reelection.

But now all that effort seems for naught. After Trump’s tweets about the tariffs, the Brazilian government struggled to adopt a cohesive response, which suggests that it may not have had warning. Bolsonaro promised he would speak to Paulo Guedes—Brazil’s minister of the economy, who had recently met with U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross—and possibly call Trump to ask him to revert the decision. Considering Trump’s negotiation style, there is indeed a chance a deal may be announced, allowing both sides to declare victory. Yet at least some damage has been done—and Bolsonaro is likely only more aware of the dangers of depending too much on Trump.

To be sure, Bolsonaro’s strategy of aligning himself with Trump was always unlikely to succeed, because it would be so difficult to provide tangible benefits to the United States or key stakeholders in the Brazilian president’s domestic coalition. For example, during their first meeting in Washington in March, Trump was set to discuss two key geopolitical challenges for the United States in the region: weakening Nicolás Maduro’s regime in Venezuela and limiting Chinese influence in Latin America.

The enthusiastically pro-Trump faction in the Brazilian administration—including the president, his sons, and the foreign minister—promised results on both counts, but these promises have been repeatedly publicly contradicted by the government’s military faction, led by Vice President Hamilton Mourão. Not only has the vice president ruled out any Brazilian support for a potential U.S. military engagement in Venezuela, but he has also directly contradicted his boss’s promise to move away from China and closer to the United States. In March, Mourão blocked Bolsonaro’s controversial plan to move the Brazilian Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a move meant to underline Brazil’s pro-Trump credentials. A month later, seeking to balance the president’s pro-U.S. rhetoric, Mourão told Folha de São Paulo that China was “not a threat, but a strategic partner.”

At the same time, key factions in the Bolsonaro coalition saw their hopes dashed that Trump would make any meaningful concessions to Brazil. Brazilian farmers who had wanted a free trade agreement soon realized that Trump would not allow them to directly compete with American farmers, a key constituency for the U.S. president. The neoliberal faction of the Bolsonaro administration—led by Guedes, the economy minister—was likewise disappointed that Trump would not push harder for Brazil’s entry into the OECD, something seen as an important seal of approval to attract more foreign investment. In a leaked letter to OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría in August, the U.S. State Department gave preference to Romania and Argentina’s accession, a move seen as especially humiliating to a Brazilian audience given that Argentina’s president-elect, Alberto Fernández, would most likely care less about OECD membership than Brazil’s Bolsonaro.

Finally, after Bolsonaro agreed, in early September, to increase Brazil’s tariff-free quota for ethanol imports, a move that directly benefited the United States, the U.S. decision two months later not to lift a ban on importing Brazilian beef strengthened the overall perception that Bolsonaro’s bet on Trump hadn’t panned out. Trump’s decision to reinstate tariffs was yet another humiliation for Brazil’s president.

The president’s son Eduardo Bolsonaro’s promise, made after the election in late 2018, that the United States would soon become Brazil’s most important trading partner—a position China has held since 2009—thus quickly turned out to be wishful thinking. It also ignored the fact that China’s and Brazil’s economies are, in many ways, far more compatible than Brazil’s and the United States’. China is already the destination of around 28 percent of Brazilian exports—a percentage that is increasing rapidly. Less than half that figure—13.1 percent—goes to the United States. Brazil’s economy depends on exports of natural resources and agricultural products. Unlike the United States, which enjoys sufficient domestic production, China will continue looking toward Brazilian commodities to feed its industries and population.

China has been deepening its influence in Latin America’s largest economy even as Bolsonaro has accused it of wanting to “buy Brazil.” And ultimately, China, the first target of Trump’s trade war, may be the biggest beneficiary of the president’s new salvo against Brazilian exports. Already, Chinese President Xi Jinping has started seeking to convince Brazil’s president that China is a far more reliable partner than the United States. In November, Xi raised the number of Brazilian meat plants that are allowed export to China. The same month, two Chinese state oil companies were the only foreign bidders in an otherwise disappointing oil auction in Brazil. The bids came after Bolsonaro personally invited the Chinese to bid during a visit to Beijing in October.

China has also voiced support for Brazilian foreign policy. In September, after Brazil found itself the target of a storm of global criticism over fires in the Amazon, Qu Yuhui, from the Chinese Embassy in Brasília, gave an interview to one of Brazil’s largest newspapers and voiced support for the country’s environmental policies, a gesture Bolsonaro thanked Xi for during November’s BRICS Summit in Brasília. And in what observers saw as a swipe at Trump, Brazil’s president agreed to the final BRICS Summit Declaration, which includes an emphatic defense of multilateralism and the Paris agreement on climate change, which Bolsonaro had initially promised to abandon.

Adopting rhetoric that would have been unthinkable during his first months in office, when he was consistently critical of China, Bolsonaro recently said that the two countries were “born to walk together” and that China was an “ever greater part of Brazil’s future.” He even said Brazil would stay out of the trade war between Washington and Beijing. With the United States looking like a riskier bet, it is likely that Brazil-China ties will expand further in the coming years.

All this will complicate Washington’s broader geopolitical ambitions to reduce China’s influence in the region, particularly when it comes to the pressure it exerts on Brazil’s government to exclude the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei from the 5G bidding process, set to take place next year. Leading U.S. policymakers have frequently warned Brazil against allowing the Chinese telecommunications company to build an ultra-fast 5G cellular network there, even saying that the United States would have to reassess how much intelligence it could share with Brazil if Huawei won the bidding process.

But, in no small part thanks to Trump’s recent announcement, Beijing is quietly winning the geopolitical standoff between China and the United States in Latin America.

Oliver Stuenkel is an associate professor of international relations at the Getulio Vargas Foundation in São Paulo. Twitter: @OliverStuenkel

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