President Tsai Ing-wen’s public expression of gratitude to “all of our friends in Brazil,” responding to the trending #VivaTaiwan on Twitter in Brazil, may appear to be a benign gesture.

But from a Brazilian perspective, the thanks struck a very different note. Far from a grassroots movement of solidarity with Taiwan, the #VivaTaiwan slogan arose from President Jair Bolsonaro’s orbit.

The pro-Taiwan tweeting in Brazil originated with an incident involving President Bolsonaro’s son, Eduardo Bolsonaro, also a politician. Eduardo said the Chinese Communist Party was to blame for Covid-19, tweeting, “It’s their fault.” The accusation instigated a minor diplomatic row, leading to a response from the Chinese consul general in Rio de Janeiro.

Many prominent pro-Bolsonaro Twitter accounts soon after added Taiwanese flags to their screen names, displaying them alongside the flags of Brazil, the United States, and Israel — all three being common sights at rallies supporting the far-right president. There have been public calls asking the president to recognize Taiwan as a "friendly people" to Brazilians.

Tsai’s thanks were received as an affirmation by pro-Bolsonaro media. On May 27, a day after Tsai’s message, Eduardo Bolsonaro appeared on a broadcast with a far-right blogger under investigation by the Supreme Court for spreading fake news, Allan dos Santos. A Taiwanese flag was displayed and #VivaTaiwan were among the hashtags used to promote the event.

Mauricio Santoro, professor of International Relations at State University of Rio de Janeiro (UERJ), views pro-Taiwan rhetoric from Bolsonaro’s supporters as reflecting the influence of American right-wing groups. He said that Bolsonaro's attitude towards Taiwan has been “greatly influenced by the alt-right and other movements of the American right, which are also enthusiastic about the island.”

“Just remember that Trump even took a phone call from [President Tsai] shortly after he was elected, before his advisors warned of the diplomatic risk,” Santoro said.

In 2018, Bolsonaro visited Taiwan as a presidential candidate. But since taking office he has been more careful to protect trade with China, distancing himself personally from pro-Taiwan symbolism, leaving the task to allies such as Paulo Martins, a congressman close to the Bolsonaro family.

Santoro sees President Bolsonaro’s and his supporters’ affinity for Taiwan as a gesture directed at their support base and an echo of the ideological positions of American right-wing group, rather than a way to earn diplomatic gains.

“Brazil has a lot to win on the international stage, say, by turning up the heat against China in favor of the United States, therefore Brazil embraces with great enthusiasm anti-China initiatives set up by Donald Trump,” said Guilherme Casarões, professor of politics and international relations at the Getúlio Vargas Foundation.


Photo Credit: AP / TPG Images

President Donald Trump is seated before a dinner with Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, left, at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Florida, on March 7, 2020.

Casarões said the promotion of the Taiwanese flag is part of the open anti-communism of the Bolsonaro government.

“Bolsonaro represents a generation of military personnel that includes the current Brazilian generals and admirals, who were trained as officers in the 1970s at the height of Brazil's dictatorship,” he said.

Santoro added that the Bolsonaro administration is “very much marked by the Cold War worldview, such as radical anti-communism, and have difficulties in understanding the more complex and fragmented international reality of the early 21st century.”

For Taiwan, the benefits of having Brazil as an ally is questionable. Bolsonaro is seen as an outcast, as the European Union’s member states threatening to withdraw from trade agreements because of Bolsonaro’s policies, especially on the deforestation of Amazon. Most importantly, pursuing any kind of alliance with Brazil under Bolsonaro would undermine Taiwan’s efforts to stand as a beacon of democracy and progressive values.

The Brazilian government’s approach to Taiwan is nothing but rhetoric used to gin up its far-right base by provoking China and currying favor with President Donald Trump.

Taiwan ought to have nothing to do with this.

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TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty, Daphne K. Lee (@thenewslensintl)

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