Lula visits China

The agenda for the visit includes former president Dilma Rousseff’s inauguration as New Development Bank president

April 12, 2023 by Brasil de Fato
Lula arrived to China on April 12. Photo: Ricardo Stuckert

President Lula arrived to the People’s Republic of China on Wednesday, April 12, for one of the most important state visits of his third presidential term. The diplomatic visit, which will take place on April 13 and 14, includes ministers and governors—a reflection of the size of the existing and future possibilities in the relationship between Brazil and the Asian power.

It is expected that over 20 agreements will be signed in Beijing, intensifying the already huge trade between the two countries. China has been Brazil’s biggest trading partner since 2009. Last year, the trade balance between them surpassed USD 150 billion, in addition to being the major source of investment in all Latin American countries.

The visit, initially scheduled for March, was delayed due to President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva being diagnosed with pneumonia at the time.

On April 13, Lula will be in Shanghai to attend the inauguration of Dilma Rousseff as president of the New Development Bank (NDB), the BRICS bank. Rousseff replaces Marcos Troyjo, who had ties to the neoliberal Minister of Economy under Bolsonaro, Paulo Guedes. On April 14, the president will meet in Beijing with union leaders, the president of the National People’s Assembly Zhao Leji, Prime Minister Li Qiang, and President Xi Jinping.

This is Lula’s fourth international mission since his third presidential inauguration and the trip is happening two months after the president’s visit to Washington. Since taking the presidency in January this year, Lula has traveled to Argentina, Uruguay, and the United States. Now, he will head to China and the United Arab Emirates, marking the country’s comeback to the international arena after the period of isolation under Jair Bolsonaro’s government.

Lula will travel with ministers Fernando Haddad (Finance), Marina Silva (Environment and Climate Change), Carlos Fávaro (Agriculture and Livestock), Luciana Santos (Science, Technology and Innovation), Mauro Vieira (Foreign Relations), Alexandre Silveira (Mining and Energy), Paulo Teixeira (Agrarian Development and Family Farming), Wellington Dias (Development and Social Assistance), and Juscelino Filho (Communications).

The Brazilian delegation also includes Governors Jerônimo Rodrigues (state of Bahia), Elmano de Freitas (state of Ceará), Carlos Brandão (state of Maranhão), Helder Barbalho (state of Pará) and Fátima Bezerra (state of Rio Grande do Norte).

The visit happens amid growing tensions between China and the US. The two biggest world economies have been exchanging sanctions and accusations of espionage at a fast pace. Beijing’s non-alignment with the position of the US and NATO on the war in Ukraine deepens their disagreements. However, Brazil has historically adopted a neutral position in foreign affairs and usually negotiates even with its adversaries.

The scope of Lula’s first trip to a non-Western country during his third presidential term contrasts with the results of the visit to the White House. The US promised to invest in the Amazon Fund and talked to Brazil about a possible partnership involving semiconductors. However, so far, resources have not been transferred, and the talks have not evolved into agreements.

To Ana Tereza Marra, a professor at the ABC Federal University (UFABC, in Portuguese) and coordinator of the China Group of the Brazilian Foreign Policy Observatory (OPEB, in Portuguese), the results of bilateral relations with the US are still shy, but there is an ongoing “political approach” with the White House. The visit to China is promising because it may offer more, she says.

“The US wants to invest in climate, but it depends on Congress to approve resources and only then can they invest or not invest. They passed that [CHIPS and Science Act], which is their attempt to change the global semiconductor supply chain and bring it to the US and their allies. They have money to invest in other countries, and at the same time, they wink at Brazil, although there is nothing agreed upon yet.” Marra also says that “China, by its very nature and its relations with Brazil in recent years, manages to make things concrete more quickly.”

Regarding the ability of the Itamaraty, the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Brazil to maintain their historical position of neutrality and negotiation in the midst of an increasingly intense and fragmented global scenario, she believes that it is not yet possible to know the limits and possibilities of this position.

“China wants pragmatism more than alignment. It is the US that seeks Brazil’s alignment. China wants Brazil to be pragmatic and to embrace opportunities,” she said. She added, “the US demands [Brazil] take a position,” however, this is not an ultimatum yet.

How not to avoid becoming a “sacrifice zone”

In 2022, Brazil sold USD 31.78 billion in soybeans to China and dozens of billions of dollars in iron and oil. China exports products to Brazil with greater technological complexity, such as solar panels and phone equipment.

The soybean production chain in Brazil is linked to large estates, GMOs, and the intense use of pesticides. Therefore, a rise in Chinese appetite for the product could possibly mean the growth of environmental and human rights violations in Brazil.

To prevent the country from becoming a sort of “sacrifice zone” to Chinese economic growth and the enrichment of Brazilian estate owners, researcher Ana Tereza Marra advocates the adoption of some public policies.

“One way to improve economic relations is by attracting Chinese investments to Brazil directed at sectors of strategic interest. The government has to be clear about which sectors these are and which projects they want China to finance,” Marra told Brasil de Fato. “That’s the Lula government’s goal. These investments support the country’s reindustrialization.”

This article was adapted from an article originally published on Brasil de Fato.