Washington takes swipe at China’s ‘predatory’ ties with Brazil as Bolsonaro begins presidency by courting US

  • Right-wing newcomer takes office amid signals of shift towards US and away from Brazil’s long-established close relationship with Beijing
PUBLISHED : Thursday, 03 January, 2019, 10:05pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 03 January, 2019, 11:23pm

The United States took a swipe at “predatory” China as US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Brazil for the inauguration of President Jair Bolsonaro, whose election campaign was marked by cautionary remarks on China.

Bolsonaro, who took office on New Year’s Day, signalled a shift toward the US and blended soothing remarks to Brazil’s largest trading partner – China – with warnings against its increasing influence on South America’s biggest economy.

The administration of US President Donald Trump welcomed Bolsonaro’s statements on China.

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“We applaud President-elect Bolsonaro for standing up for Brazilian sovereignty in the face of China’s predatory trade and lending practices,” the State Department said last week.

Pompeo attended the inauguration on Tuesday.

Trump congratulated Bolsonaro with a tweet saying, “The USA is with you!” On the day of the inauguration, the former US ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley congratulated Bolsonaro in a tweet that said he “clearly understands the danger of China’s expanding influence in the region”.

The election of Bolsonaro, once a low-key right-wing politician, to the presidency marks a shift in Brazilian politics after years of control by the Brazilian Workers’ Party. Relations with China grew during the term of former president Dilma Rousseff, who was impeached in 2016. She was succeeded by her vice-president, Michel Temer of the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party, until Bolsonaro’s electoral success in October.

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China is Brazil’s biggest trading partner, overtaking the US in 2009. The US remains No 2, followed by the European Union.

Last year, trade between Brazil and China surpassed US$100 billion, and Brazilian exports to China sat at US$66.6 billion, a 32 per cent rise from the previous year, according to data released on Wednesday by the Brazilian Ministry of Economy.

The data showed that Brazil broke export records for commodities such as soy, for which China is a major market. Brazil has played a big part in supplying China with commodities during Beijing’s trade war with Washington, particularly in soybeans.

Bolsonaro has a history of frustrating Beijing while staying open in principle to the rising levels of Chinese investment in his country. China invested US$11 billion in Brazil in 2017, but Bolsonaro warned against greater involvement in Beijing’s business.

On the campaign trail, Bolsonaro claimed that China was “buying Brazil”. In November, he opposed the sale of Eletrobras, a Brazilian state utilities company, because of the possibility of Chinese ownership, Reuters said.

Bolsonaro subsequently softened his tone, saying he would welcome Chinese investment and meeting with Chinese officials who invited him to visit China.

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Chinese officials played down tensions with Brazil. Ji Bingxuan, vice-chairman of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, attended the inauguration on behalf of President Xi Jinping.

Ji said that China was “willing to work” with Brazil to strengthen relations, state news agency Xinhua reported, while Bolsonaro said that relations would “surely become better and better”.