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Even Latin America’s Trump is Kowtowing to the Chinese

Credit: Getty Images/Mark Wilson

Trump and Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro seem like kindred spirits, aligned on everything from cracking down on crime and illegal immigration to the aggressive swipes they’ve taken at other world leaders. A “bromance” has supposedly been brewing between them, defining a partnership that’s only been strengthened by Bolsonaro’s March and May visits to the United States.

Bolsonaro’s trip to China last week underscored another commonality between the two presidents. Both have pledged to shake up the status quo, drain their respective swamps, and get tough on China, and both, once in office, have struggled to live up to those promises. The family members and close friends that have featured prominently in Bolsonaro’s and Trump’s administrations have also given fodder to the two presidents’ critics, as they struggle to break free of Chinese trade leverage.

Last week, during his trip to Beijing, Bolsonaro made a striking admission: “Today we can say that a significant part of Brazil needs China, and China also needs Brazil.” This stands in sharp contrast to his previous vitriolic rhetoric. Only 10 months into his term, Bolsonaro is already stepping away from his anti-China crusade. He is now actively courting Chinese investment and looking to smooth the feathers he ruffled during his campaign, when he criticized Beijing for its increasing acquisition of Brazilian assets. Calling Beijing’s buy-up of the valuable mineral niobium a “crime against the nation,” he famously declared that China is not just “buying in Brazil—it is buying Brazil.”

This aggressive stance likely resonated with Trump, who once called China’s trading relationship with the United States “the greatest theft in the history of the world.” Now, however, Trump may be questioning whether he and Bolsonaro are still in sync. Brazil’s government, after all, does not have a strong incentive to crack down on Chinese trading practices, given their current economic reality.

Bolsonaro spent most of his time in Beijing signing a number of agriculture and infrastructure deals and courting Chinese investment. In particular, he invited two massive Chinese energy companies to take part in a bid for offshore oil and gas rights in Brazil, where total signing bonuses are projected to exceed $25 billion. And the budding relationship between Xi Jinping and Bolsonaro seems likely to deepen in the upcoming weeks: Xi is attending the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) Summit on November 11 in Brasilia.

Bolsonaro’s swift reversal on China may seem shocking, but it’s part of a broader trend: both he and Trump have been confronted by the harsh reality that it is more difficult to shake up the status quo than they had anticipated. Trump has appointed a number of ex-lobbyists, Goldman Sachs alums, and old friends whose actions have left him open to criticism. Bolsonaro, like Trump, has heavily involved his family in his administration, and his inner circle, which includes two of his sons, has been increasingly drawn into China’s orbit.

Eduardo Bolsonaro, the president’s younger son—an associate of Steve Bannon’s who recently dropped out of contention to be the Brazilian ambassador to the U.S.—waded into a commercial dispute in July when he accepted a symbolic check from Jackson Widjaja. The Widjaja-controlled company Paper Excellence is in the process of buying the Brazilian paper firm Eldorado but was unsuccessful in obtaining a loan from the China Development Bank. The controversial, financially shady, and scandal-ridden Chinese-Indonesian Widjaja family have made their billions from coconut oil, palm oil, and the pulp and the paper industry, causing massive environmental damage.

Meanwhile, Bolsonaro’s eldest son, Flavio—the subject of an ongoing criminal investigation into a money laundering scheme who also apparently has ties to some of Rio’s most notorious paramilitary gangs—took advantage of an all expenses paid trip to China earlier this year. On the luxurious tour, Flavio Bolsonaro and several other Brazilian lawmakers visited Chinese businesses, including Alibaba and Huawei, and met with high-level Communist Party officials.

Just as Bolsonaro’s sons have been swayed by the power of Beijing’s purse, the Brazilian president has left his campaign rhetoric and ideology by the wayside as the reality of China’s importance to Brazil’s economy becomes unavoidable. China is Brazil’s largest trading partner with a surplus of around $30 billion in 2018 alone, and the largest source of foreign investment in Brazil.

Even as Bolsonaro buddied up with Trump on his visits, his vice president, Hamilton Mourão, was building bridges with Beijing. Mourão assured China and the media that Brazil did not truly see Beijing as a threat but as a potential future partner. Brazil also backed China’s bid to head up the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and made it clear they were ready to play ball on long-term cooperation. Brazil’s new message to China is simple: BRICS should stick together.

Brazil’s rapprochement with Beijing has put a strain on Bolsonaro’s bromance with Trump, with the question of whether Brasilia will choose Huawei as a partner for the rollout of 5G in Brazil a particular flashpoint. Trump has tried privately to convince Bolsonaro to eschew accepting Huawei equipment, while Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross has passed “secret and sensitive” information about Huawei to the Brazilian government. These warnings appear to have fallen on deaf ears, as Bolsonaro recently declared that his government will mainly consider cost when choosing a 5G provider.

Yet even the Trump administration itself has shown that it may be softening on China. While Vice President Mike Pence slams the Chinese on everything from their mass incarceration of Uighur Muslims to their unacceptable repression of pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong, President Trump has been busy piecing together a major new trade deal with Beijing.

Just as Bolsonaro’s fiery campaign rhetoric seems to have flown the coop, so too have Trump’s denunciations of NAFTA’s “rape” of America and China’s great defrauding of the American economy, in favor of another trade agreement that looks a lot like NAFTA and an administration staffed by a plethora of Goldman Sachs execs and former lobbyists. Trump’s hiring of a circle of family members and old friends has also left him open to criticism when they make missteps, as has his own version of the slick revolving door between the government and private sector. Instead of draining the swamp, Trump has filled it with even more red tie-clad alligators.

Bolsonaro and Trump were elected on the backs of real concerns—that corrupt elites had outsize influence in politics, that cities were becoming less safe, that China was engaging in abusive trade practices, and that foreign policy objectives needed to be seriously reassessed for the good of national security and the national interest. Unfortunately, as illustrated by their softening stances towards Beijing, both have become their own worst enemies in failing to follow through.

Correction: This piece initially stated that Paper Excellence had obtained a loan from the China Development Bank. In fact, it was unsuccessful in its attempts to do so. The language of the relevant paragraph has been updated to reflect this.

Paul Brian is a freelance journalist. He has reported for the BBC, Reuters, and Foreign Policy, and contributed to The Week, The Federalist, and others. You can follow him on Twitter @paulrbrian or visit his website www.paulrbrian.com.

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