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Latin American Rik Report: Brazil – Lula goes to China (April 18, 2023)

  • Brazil’s president angered Washington with his words over the past week. But the Biden administration needs to continue to take the long view and find a way to engage with him.
Latin American Rik Report: Brazil - Lula goes to China
Latin American Rik Report: Brazil – Lula goes to China

In the past week, Lula went to China. There were some very real results from Lula’s trip. Substantive agreements on telecomssemiconductors, and energy will give China a more significant foothold in Brazil. Beijing understands that real investment across many years, not just kind words, is how it can avoid another dip in influence, as it experienced under Bolsonaro. Brazil will receive support in developing cybersecurity and 5G technology and in monitoring deforestation and climate change, as well as potentially soon a “bilateral green investment fund to finance and subsidize developing green and renewable energy.” Brazil’s green energy sector and mining sector also both stand to benefit from a positive Brazil-China relationship, as evidenced by recent agreements strengthening cooperation and investment.

Yet, the past week will not be remembered for those agreements, but rather the rhetoric. Lula criticized US foreign policy from Beijing, called for peace in Ukraine in a way that seemed to favor Russia’s interests, and demanded an end to the dominance of the US dollar in trade. Then, upon his return to Brazil, Lula’s government welcomed Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. 

Regardless of whatever nuance that could be offered for Lula’s motives – and I offered some of that in last week’s World Politics Review column – the impression from the United States is that Lula just stabbed the US in the back and is siding with opponents of the US. It’s not going to be simple for Lula to regain his friendly standing in the US, including among many Democrats, after everything that has just occurred. At a moment in Washington, DC, in which all US foreign policy is framed as US vs China or US vs Russia, Lula appears to have misjudged just how poorly his comments would be received in the US. Such strong rhetorical support for Russia and China in the current environment isn’t as easy to simply brush off as some of his previous comments regarding Brazil’s position towards US antagonists. Brazil’s foreign ministry is going to have a major clean-up job on its hands.

Yet, for all the anger that Washington will have over Lula’s trip, Brazil remains one of the best potential partners that the US has in the hemisphere. And it’s a hemisphere where the US needs help because no unilateral solution exists to the political and economic crises, the challenges or security, or the competition that the US is convinced it is engaged in with China. In spite of whatever critical comments about the US Lula made in the past week, he would happily chat with Joe Biden again tomorrow and sign deals with US companies for investment in Brazil. That’s his style. The only way Lula permanently sides with Russia and China is if the US refuses to engage with him. Letting this past week hang over the next two years of relations would be among the biggest mistakes the US can make.

For the US to engage, it should spend less time arguing against Lula’s criticisms of the dominance of the dollar or his plans for peace in Ukraine. Instead, it should look back to that first paragraph of all the deals China made with Brazil. That’s where China is currently outplaying the US and where the US can start to win back some ground in Brazil and elsewhere.


Jordi Amaral assisted with the research on today’s post. Not directly related to his work at Hxagon.

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