Biden or Trump, the U.S.-Brazil Relationship Is Still Headed for Trouble

No matter the president, Washington won’t stand for Brasilia’s growing ties with Beijing.

Jair Bolsonaro looks on at a ceremony in which Eduardo Pazuello takes office as Minister of Health amidst the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic in Brasilia on Sept. 16.
Jair Bolsonaro looks on at a ceremony in which Eduardo Pazuello takes office as Minister of Health amidst the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic in Brasilia on Sept. 16. Andressa Anholete/Getty Images

The presidency of right-wing populist Jair Bolsonaro raised eyebrows in the United States for many reasons, not least because for the first time in two decades, a Brazilian leader spoke openly not of autonomy in foreign policy, but of trying to diminish the country’s partnership with China and achieve greater alignment with the United States. Brasília’s progress since has been uneven, and the U.S.-Chinese competition has heated up. As such, the next U.S. administration will face critical questions about the United States’ relationship with Brazil—and about Brazil’s ties with China.

It is clear that Bolsonaro wants President Donald Trump to secure another term against former Vice President Joe Biden in November. Trump’s reelection would lend legitimacy to Bolsonaro, since he has emulated much of the American president’s populist message—and to a lesser extent, embraced his governing model. The president’s son, Federal Deputy Eduardo Bolsonaro, has made frequent trips to Washington (sometimes sporting a MAGA hat), and was, for a brief time, his father’s choice for ambassador to the United States. In a recent tweet, Eduardo Bolsonaro even went so far as to endorse Trump, irking many Democrats who would prefer Brazil keep its electoral preferences silent. In turn, Trump is one of the few global leaders who is generally friendly toward the Brazilian president at a time when the South American country’s international image has suffered mightily.

Indeed, Brazil is under intense international scrutiny on myriad fronts. Bolsonaro’s record on human rights and the environment is poor. He continues to appear indifferent to deforestation in the Amazon, disregards the role of multilateral institutions, and downplays the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic. At one point, even Trump appeared to pile on. “If we did what Brazil did,” he said of the pandemic in May, “we would have way more deaths in the United States.” Bolsonaro, who is usually quick to rebuff any criticism, was taciturn in his response. Maintaining friendly ties with the U.S. president, no matter how difficult, seems an immutable foreign policy priority.

Yet if Bolsonaro gets his wish and Trump emerges victorious in November, the price of continued U.S. friendship could be steep. The Trump administration has focused unremittingly on Brazil’s relationship with China, especially when it comes to a highly anticipated auction to develop Brazil’s 5G capabilities—expected in the first trimester of 2021. Barring any changes or exemptions, China’s Huawei will compete in the auction against Finland’s Nokia and Sweden’s Ericsson, both of which the U.S. prefers over Huawei. Despite U.S. pressure, Brazil has been reticent to exclude the firm from the competition. The country remains incredibly reliant on China commercially, which diminishes the appetite of Brazilian policymakers to confront China head-on. There’s also fear of potential retaliation from Chinese President Xi Jinping and pressure from Brazil’s agricultural lobby and the mining sector—key components of Bolsonaro’s political base—to straddle both Chinese and U.S. interests.

Should Trump win a second term, especially on the back of a campaign featuring strong anti-China rhetoric, U.S. tariffs on Chinese industries and targeted sanctions on Chinese Communist Party officials are likely to increase. That could affect several Chinese companies that are well established in Brazil’s market, such as the China Three Gorges Corporation, the state-owned power company, as well as other financial institutions and a few infrastructure companies. In such a scenario, Brazil may even be asked to enforce and uphold U.S. sanctions on Chinese entities and individuals. Those demands would be hard for Bolsonaro to ignore.

Alternatively, if Biden emerges victorious in November, Brazil’s 5G auction may naturally fall at a moment of reduced political pressure. Bolsonaro could try to hold the auction before Biden’s political appointees and chosen ambassadors navigate the labyrinthine Senate confirmation process, all while acting or career officials still occupy key posts in the State, Commerce, and Defense Departments.

Biden’s election may help the Brazilian president dodge a bullet on the 5G auction, but his celebrations wouldn’t last long. There’s no doubt that Biden would still push Brazil to reorient itself away from China and toward the United States, although his understated style and his preference for diplomacy would likely steer him toward formal, diplomatic channels with less fanfare than Trump’s thunderous denunciations. Biden’s propensity to work behind closed doors may keep any public acrimony in the U.S.-Brazilian relationship to a minimum, but it also risks being interpreted by Brasília as an opportunity to put off answering the questions that vex the U.S.-Brazilian relationship.

To avoid that, Biden may seek to condition any new agreements on verifiable changes in Bolsonaro’s posture. The implementation of old ones could also be subject to such mandates; in the last few years, the Trump administration reached military cooperation agreements (even designating Brazil a major non-NATO ally), science and technology partnerships (including one to launch satellites from Brazil’s Alcantara space center), and most coveted for Brazil, a U.S. endorsement of its application to the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Biden could also remind Bolsonaro of his promise to reform the United Nations Security Council and push for the creation of permanent seats for emerging powers, which would include Brasília, where diplomats have long grumbled about the difficulty of securing a place in the international order commensurate with Brazil’s lofty aspirations.

Beyond the China question, faced with a Biden administration, Brazil would have to shift its narrative significantly to curry favor with Democrats—and perhaps disavow its previous pro-Trump stances. Indeed, senior figures in the Bolsonaro administration, while reading the national polls, have already started hedging their bets. Foreign Minister Ernesto Araújo stated recently that Brazil could “deal with a Biden administration”—a lukewarm endorsement, but an endorsement nonetheless.

The Bolsonaro administration would have an uphill struggle to win over Democrats on several major sticking points: the environment and preserving the Amazon; indigenous and minority rights; and the health of Brazil’s democratic institutions. Recent months have seen several committees of the Democrat-controlled U.S. House of Representatives release notes of condemnation regarding Brazil’s handling of Amazon deforestation. While Bolsonaro could tone down his rhetoric temporarily for the sake of better relations with Democrats, doing so permanently is likely out of the question because it would risk alienating his base as he looks toward reelection in 2022.

A decades-long flirtation with a free trade agreement between the United States and Brazil continues, although it is unlikely to come to fruition under either Trump or Biden. First, a deal of such size and scope would take several years of intense and nuanced negotiations. As one of the largest agricultural exporters in the world, Brazil competes with the United States in a number of key industries rather than offering complementarity, and the countries have a well-known history of trade frictions. Second, Trump’s positive overtures on trade with Brazil notwithstanding, he is more protectionist than his predecessors; over the past two presidential election cycles, the Democratic Party has moved in a more anti-trade direction, too. Under both administrations, there may be room for a series of more circumscribed, sector-based trade agreements that could satisfy Brazil, open markets for American producers, pass muster with the U.S. Congress, and begin to cut into China’s economic presence in the country.

Whichever presidential candidate emerges victorious in November, the China challenge will remain at the epicenter of U.S.-Brazilian relations. Unlike other Latin American countries, China has been unable to develop significant lines of credit to Brazil’s federal government, which has diminished its power over the Brazilian government. That gives Brazilian policymakers greater latitude than their counterparts in the region to push back against China. And it is precisely because U.S. policymakers understand that Brazil has choices that both presidents would continue to pressure it to choose the United States.

Ryan C. Berg is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where his research includes Latin American foreign-policy issues.

Thiago de Aragão is a senior associate with the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and partner at Arko Advice, a top political risk consultancy in Brazil.

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