China knows a lot about Brazil and Brazil knows very little about China

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Translated from El Pais.

BRASILIA, Brazil – The debate over China in the capitals of the West is undergoing an unprecedented transformation. Optimists with the aftermath of China’s rise – the so-called panda huggers, who have dominated public debate since the 1990s – are loosing room for the China hawks, for whom the West needs to adopt a much tougher defense strategy against growing Chinese influence.

Two recent publications symbolize this change. In Germany, the Authoritarian Advance report: Responding to China’s Growing Political Influence in Europe, published by MERICS and GPPi, two major think tanks in Berlin , argues that Beijing’s attempts to influence European politics and the promotion of Chinese authoritarian ideals “pose a significant challenge to liberal democracy as well as to Europe’s values ​​and interests.”


In the United States, Kurt Campbell and Ely Ratner, two former high-ranking diplomats, published in Foreign Affairs magazine the article The China Reckoning: How Beijing Defied American Expectations, in free translation). In it, the authors argue that US policy toward China since World War II was hopelessly naive and that Beijing ended up taking advantage of Washington.

In Australia, the government tightened the rules for foreign investment in agricultural land and energy infrastructure in response to China’s growing economic influence and the release of data on Chinese government-sponsored business donations before the 2016 elections. In a dramatic gesture, the Australian prime minister criticized China (Australia’s biggest trading partner and largest investor in the country) for its interference. On Australian television, he invoked, in Mandarin, a famous Chinese slogan associated with Mao Tse Tung to declare that the Australian people will “stand up” against meddling in their domestic affairs. We will see similar government discourses and measures in the West over the next few years, such as banning foreign political financing, increasing monitoring of Chinese investments (especially in sensitive areas such as infrastructure and media), and more emphasis on cybersecurity to avoid external interference , as seen in the United States during the 2016 elections.

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China’s growing economic role is also an irrefutable reality in Brazil. We are increasingly dependent on Chinese demand for commodities, and China will soon become the largest investor in Brazil, giving it unprecedented economic and political influence. Brazil has little choice but to operate within these structural constraints. The point is not to accept or reject this growing dependency reality, but how to manage it so that it will benefit our strategic interests.
Growing tensions between China and the West will have a major impact on the global order, and Brazil can draw important lessons from the episodes described above if China learns to navigate in this new geopolitical environment heavily influenced by Beijing. However, at a recent meeting in Brasilia among experts in China, government, academic and private sector participants openly agreed that Brazil did not have a clear strategy for the new scenario. This is partly because domestic challenges currently reduce Brazil’s room for maneuver in foreign policy. However, one more worrying reason is that the fundamental nature of the Brazil-China ties today is one of the deepest asymmetries of knowledge: China knows a lot about Brazil, while Brazil knows very little about China.
Beijing systematically invests in forming an elite of analysts with a sophisticated understanding of Brazil – including precise goals on how many Chinese should learn Portuguese. Brazil, for its part, does not have a comparable strategy. How many sinologists will the country need in the coming decades? How many Brazilian students must have spent at least one semester in Chinese universities? What is the desirable number of Chinese tourists in Brazil in the medium term?

This asymmetry already has consequences. Nowadays, it is common for a ministry in Brasilia to discover that a Chinese interlocutor interested in a major infrastructure project has been in parallel with the Itamaraty, the Planalto, regulatory agencies and several state governors to achieve their objectives, without there was some kind of coordination among the Brazilian entities. This allows Chinese investors to operate in Brazil and seek business in ways that a Brazilian investor in China could never do.

Any coherent Brazil strategy to deal with China should start by investing heavily to overcome this asymmetry of knowledge. This involves large-scale exchange programs to stimulate the formation of sinologists, public investment for independent research on China, and possibly the development within the diplomatic career of a segment of professionals exclusively dedicated to China.

Properly managed, the bilateral relationship can bring many benefits. The Chinese rise offers opportunities to tap into its huge financial reserves for Brazil’s investment priorities – above all, to modernize Brazil’s infrastructure, a major obstacle to the country’s competitiveness in the global marketplace. Clearly, this also requires clear rules to avoid problems similar to those pointed out by the Australian prime minister. However, if Brazil reaches a deep understanding of China – not only in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but also in universities, NGOs, companies, state and municipal governments – the country can extract the best of a world in which the Chinese have a central role .

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