Can Brazil learn to manipulate China?

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One of the key questions for Brazilian decision makers - both in domestic and foreign policy - this year will be how to deal with China's growing influence. Brazil's strategy is not only crucial for the bilateral ties between China and Brazil, but also fundamentally influences the way Brazil would like to position itself in the larger context of an historic and inexorable shift of power towards the BRICS.

A key factor that shapes Brazil's strategy towards China is, interestingly enough, an utter lack of preparedness and lack of knowledge about China. At first glance, this may come as a surprise. As Maciel and Nedal point out in an excellent book chapter on Brazil- China relations (perhaps the best currently on the market), Brazil's Foreign Minister Azeredo da Silveira argued as early as 1974 that China "had consolidated itself as an emerging power", urging his President Geisel to normalize diplomatic relations to the PRC. After the Cold War, a consensus emerged among Brazil's foreign policy makers that Brazil needed to normalize its participation in international institutions and diversify its partnerships - a move that, on the multilateral level, regularly exposed China to Brazil. Under President Lula, Brazil fully embraced the "emerging power" category (which in Brazil's eyes also included China), and began to prioritize ties with other emerging powers.

So then why has Brazil been relatively insecure when dealing with China? Not only was Brazil's official recognition of China’s market status never implemented (revealing internal differences), but the domestic debate about China's growing influence is dominated by radical and often uninformed voices. For example, recent sinophobia among Brazil's business community is largely based on inflated estimates about China's FDI in Brazil.

In 2005, Brazil's grossly overestimated the strength of China-Brazil ties when it expected China to support Brazil's bid for a permanent seat in the UN Security Council - even though China's reluctance to do so was no secret, largely because Brazil's bid was tied to Japan's. Finally, there seems to be an odd difference between the quality of ties on the multilateral and the bilateral level, the latter being much more complicated.

One key problem is that the Brazilian government has simply begun too late to prepare for Chinese dominance. As Maciel and Nedal point out,

The Brazilian embassy in Beijing and the consular office in Shanghai are severely understaffed (the embassy has only 12 diplomats, fewer people than the Brazilian embassy in Paraguay) and receive very little support and attention from the Foreign Ministry.

Yet the government is not the only one to blame. The authors rightly argue that

There are also other, more structural, factors at play at the social and institutional levels. Brazil still has virtually no Sinologists or university courses on Chinese history, economy, politics, legislation, business culture or other such topics, and Chinese language studies are only now being popularized. As a result, the number of Chinese speakers or skilled China hands in private enterprises and especially in civil service is very small.

Universities are beginning to react. For example, Fundação Getulio Vargas (FGV) is now offering scholarships for its students to study at Bejing's Normal University. Yet Brazil's foreign ministry also needs to do more. As Matias Spektor recently pointed out in an interview with Valor Econômico, Brazil knows too little about its largest trading partner and needs to increase its capacity to "manipulate China" in its favor - largely by building up a great diplomatic presence in Beijing, convince its diplomats to learn Mandarin, and to seek to understand the centers of power in China. After all, China's influence in Brazil is set to rise. There is a growing consensus in Brazil that protectionist measures against Chinese goods are mere palliative measures that may increase inflation. Rather, Brazil needs to undertake reforms to boost its own productivity to be able to compete successfully.

One must be fair enough to point out, though, that Brazil is far from the only country that struggles to come to terms with this reality. The international academic IR community, dominated by thinkers based in the United States, may have underestimated the speed of change. Yesterday, while preparing a lecture on the future of global order I reread "International Relations Theory and the Consequences of Unipolarity", with contributions by the IR world's heavy-weight scholars such as John Ikenberry, Stephen Walt and Robert Jervis. Ikenberry's opening text is engaging, but his deliberations on US dominance and unipolarity (written in 2008) feel oddly out of date - for example, Ikenberry writes that unipolarity "is extraordinary and has the potential to endure beyond a historical 'moment'", a notion has been largely discarded only 4 years later.

In retrospect, China's growing role in the world (and particular importance to commodity suppliers) should have been clear long ago - instead, societies around the world such as Brazil now have to rapidly develop the skills and knowledge necessary to "manipulate China" - it remains to be seen if Brazil's foreign ministry heeds Spektor's calls. Optimists who expect quick changes may be disappointed: As a Brazilian diplomat recently told me, European capitals such as Paris, Rome and Berlin still rank far above Beijing on Brazil's young diplomats' wish lists.

Read also:

Book review: “What does China want?” by Matias Spektor and Dani Nedal (orgs.)

Book review: “The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers” by Richard McGregor

China vs. India: Will the “contest of the 21st century” lead to war?

Brazil should study more China, India and South Africa, experts recommend

Photo credit: Forbes