Brazil will vote on Sunday in what will possibly be its most important election since democracy was restored in 1985. The first round elections that took place earlier this month have created a direct face-off between the incumbent president, Jair Bolsonaro, and former president Lula da Silva.

Before the election, the far-right president Bolsonaro threatened not to accept the results if he’s not re-elected. The danger to Brazil’s democracy is so real that even the U.S. Senate has approved a recommendation for the government to break off relations with Brazil in the event of a coup.

President Bolsonaro has been giving countless statements to the press as well as through social media that he won’t accept any result short of his victory and will use the military to guarantee he’ll hold power if necessary. A former army captain, Bolsonaro has broad support of the Armed Forces and much of the police forces, sowing fear among Brazilians that he will have support if he effectively refuses to leave office.

Over his four years in office, Bolsonaro has been accused of leading an incoherent foreign policy, focusing on attacking traditional allies and forging alliances with the global far-right — notably Hungary’s Viktor Orbán and former U.S. president Donald Trump. At the same time, he faces repudiation from several European Union countries and has seen his relationship with the U.S. turn sour after the election of President Joe Biden.

Bolsonaro’s relationship with Asia has been contradictory, to say the least. He visited Japan in 2018 and 2019 and maintained good relations with one of Brazil’s oldest commercial partners. In 2018, he visited both Koreas and Taiwan in his Asian tour.


Photo Credit: AP / TPG Images

China’s President Xi Jinping, left, and Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro, after delivering their statements during a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the 11th edition of the BRICS Summit, at the Itamaraty Palace, in Brasília, Brazil, Nov. 13, 2019.

Chinese authorities condemned the visit to Taiwan. At the time, the trip marked part of an ideological turn of Brazil’s foreign policy away from China. Bolsonaro was elected in 2018 on a conservative and openly anti-communist platform.

According to Mauricio Santoro, professor of International Relations at State University of Rio de Janeiro (UERJ), “Bolsonaro is the first Brazilian president since the 1970s to come to power with a discourse critical of China. At various times during his government, this became a diplomatic problem, especially at the start of the pandemic, when he and his allies reproduced Trump’s rhetoric in Brazil, which blamed the Chinese for the coronavirus, claiming it was part of biological warfare on the part of the Chinese Communist Party.”

But soon Bolsonaro gave in to pressure from businessmen and sought peace with China, Brazil’s biggest economic partner since 2009. In 2019, he visited China to discuss new economic deals and was received by the Chinese leader Xi Jinping. The truce, at least symobolicy, lasted at least until the pandemic.

“President Bolsonaro has a difficult relationship with China, but he has paid attention to the other Asian partners, whom he visited as president or candidate,” Santoro explained. “His government has even negotiated a free trade agreement between Brazil and Singapore, which is the main destination port for Brazilian products in Southeast Asia.”

Supporters of the far-right president followed in his original ideological line and insistently attacked China. They protested in front of the Chinese embassy in Brasília, holding up banners cursing the country. The then Minister of Education, Abraham Weintraub, engaged in a social media fight with the Chinese embassy. Weintraub poked fun at how Chinese people speak Portuguese and suggested China benefited from the Covid-19 pandemic. Eduardo Bolsonaro, one of the President’s sons and a lawmaker, accused China of being “an enemy of freedom.”

A Lula victory could signal a period of greater stability in relations between Brazil and Asian countries. Santoro said, “probably, besides trade, we would have more diplomatic cooperation initiatives from Brazil with Asian countries.”


Photo Credit: AP / TPG IMages

Brazil’s former President Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva, who is running for reelection, acknowledges supporters during a campaign rally, in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Saturday, Aug. 20, 2022.

He pointed out the expansion of the BRICS, which includes China and Russia, as a possible way to do so. Former President Michel Temer and Bolsonaro “did not give importance to the group, but with Lula, who was one of its creators, it would gain more prominence and could incorporate other Asian countries,” he added.

But there are broader problems that negatively affect Brazil’s relationship with Asia, “such as the reduction in China’s growth (10% a year in the 2000s, now fallen to around 3%) and the increasing tensions between China and the U.S., especially over Taiwan.”

Under Lula da Silva (2003-2010), Brazil adopted a policy of greater independence in relation to the U.S., seeking to draw closer to Iran and African countries, as well as with the BRICS and the regional strengthening of Mercosur, the South American trade bloc. If re-elected, experts expect that Lula will once again seek old partners and a more coherent foreign policy agenda.

But it is difficult to predict the position of Brazilian diplomacy in a scenario of a conflict involving China and Taiwan. Santoro believes that Lula will seek to deepen relations with China. “In the event of Lula’s victory, there would be a resumption of cooperation initiatives with China. Brazil would probably join the Belt and Road Initiative. It is likely that Lula would deepen partnerships with the Chinese in the fight against climate change and there would also be support from Brasília for proposals to expand the BRICS, incorporating other major developing countries.”

Russia’s war in Ukraine, however, could complicate things and there is growing pressure from Brazilian businessmen to increase economic protections against Chinese goods and further investments in local industry.

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TNL Editor: Bryan Chou, Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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