On December 6, 2020, Brazilian media reported that President Jair Bolsonaro has banned government ministers from meeting with the Chinese ambassador to Brazil Yang Wanming (Jardim, 2020). So far, this has been the most recent chapter of the troubled Sino-Brazilian relationship, which began under the Bolsonaro government. With a nationalist, anti-globalist, and conservative foreign policy, the Bolsonaro government has created a successive diplomatic crisis with China in just over 2 years of government. Whether on the issue of COVID-19 to 5G, Brazil has followed the same line of action as the American government. However, with the defeat of Trump, the future of the Brazilian government seems to be that of an international pariah that, in the words of Foreign Minister Ernesto Araujo, will be proud (Coletta, 2020).

For readers who are not familiar with the Sino-Brazilian relationship, it seems that relations between China and Brazil have never been good. However, in 46 years of diplomatic relations, the Bolsonaro government has represented the most troubled period of these relations. Therefore, this article presents some of the main points of the relationship between Brazil and China, their development and achievements, and the current state of relations between countries.

The establishment of diplomatic relations between Brazil and China occurs during the Brazilian military government. Between 1964 until 1985, Brazil was ruled by the military who gave a coup d’état on May 31, 1964, to then-President João Goulart, also known as Jango. The coup was supported by part of the Brazilian civil society and business sectors. In addition, documents prove the United States’ participation through its Ambassador to Brazil Lincoln Gordon (Green & Jones, 2009). The argument to justify the coup was that Brazil could be a socialist country, just like Cuba in 1959.

At first, in the context of the Cold War, Brazil began to have diplomacy very close to the United States. Subsequently, Brazilian diplomacy started to incorporate more pragmatic and realistic ideas with the objectives of national economic development and a better position in the International System (Pinheiro, 2004). Hence, although the Brazilian regime has an ideological line totally contrary to that of the People’s Republic of China, it is during the Geisel government (1974-1979), that on September 15, 1974, diplomatic relations between Brazil and China were established.

Nevertheless, it is after the re-democratization of Brazil that Sino-Brazilian relations started to develop fully. In 1988, the two countries signed the agreement for the construction of the China-Brazil Earth Resources Satellite (CBERS). The partnership is one of the most outstanding technological cooperation between developing countries (Sousa, 2016; Oliveira, 2012) and resulted in the launch of 5 satellites between 1999 and 2014 and the planning of a 6th satellite. Still, during the 1990s, China raised Brazil to the condition of “strategic partnership” in 1993 and Brazil declared support for China’s entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 1995.

At the beginning of the 21st century, the Sino-Brazilian relationship experienced a new development with great emphasis on trade and investment. Since 2009 China has been the largest Brazilian trading partner, before that, China was the largest Asian partner since 2000. Data from the Ministry of Industry, Foreign Trade and Services (MDIC) show that in 2019 China was the destination of 28.1% of Brazilian exports, representing a nominal value of US$ 63.35 billion, while Brazil imported 19.9% from China, representing US$ 35.27 billion. This positive trade balance with China has guaranteed Brazil a trade surplus.

This commercial relationship became even more profound in 2020, as we can see from the MDIC data. Between January and November 2020, Brazil exported 33% of what it produced to China, representing a value of US$ 63.19 billion, while it imported 21.9% or US$ 94.01 billion. The main products exported to China are commodities, such as soybeans and iron ore. Looking only at exports of primary goods, China’s importance increases significantly. According to the Ministry of Agriculture, between January and June, China was the destination for 40% of agricultural exports, more than the rest of Asia and Europe combined.

Regarding foreign investments, China is also an important player in Brazil. Data from the Brazil-China Business Council (CEBC) show that between 2007 and 2018 Chinese investments reached US$ 102.5 billion, of which about US$ 58 billion were confirmed. The sector that received the largest contributions was the energy infrastructure, with the confirmation of 12 projects totaling US$ 1.7 billion. Another important point is the presence of state-owned companies, which in 2018 represented 40% of investments (Duarte, 2020).

In addition to trade and investment relations, China and Brazil participate in important bilateral and multilateral organizations. The main bilateral organization between the two countries is the Sino-Brazilian Commission for High Level of Consultation and Cooperation (COSBAN), created in 2004, a coordination mechanism led by the vice presidents of both countries. With regard to multilateral mechanisms, Brazil and China are members of the BRICS and important players in the G-77 and G-20.

Despite the stability achieved over the years, Sino-Brazilian relations have faced turbulence since the 2018 presidential campaign. The background of this election is characterized by an economic and political crisis that led to the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff in 2016 and the prison in Lula da Silva prison in the context of the car wash operation. This context created the feeling of anti-politics that, largely, enabled the election of Jair Bolsonaro, a Congressman who declared himself out-side of politics.

Still, during his 2018 election campaign, Bolsonaro became the first presidential candidate to visit Taiwan, in addition to claiming that China was “not buying in Brazil, but it is buying Brazil” (Lapper, 2020). In 2019, after being elected, President Bolsonaro and Vice President Hamilton Mourão made trips to China to soften the statements made during the electoral dispute. In addition, at a BRICS meeting held in Brasilia, Bolsonaro stated that China is “increasingly part of the future of Brazil”.

However, at the beginning of 2020, a series of statements by important members of the Brazilian government made Sino-Brazilian relations face a serious challenge. The first act was Congressman Eduardo Bolsonaro, son and chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee of the House of Representatives, which in March said on his Twitter account that compared to China’s attitude towards the coronavirus with the attitude of the Soviet Union following the accident at the plant of Chernobyl (Fellet, 2020). On Twitter, the deputy stated that:

“Whoever watched Chernobyl will understand what happened. Replace the nuclear plant with the coronavirus and the Soviet dictatorship with the Chinese. […] [One more] time a dictatorship preferred to hide something serious than exposing it with wear and tear, but that would save countless lives. […] China is to blame and freedom would be the solution”

After that statement, both the Chinese Embassy and Ambassador Yang Wanming reacted and demanded a formal apology from the Brazilian government. In the words of Ambassador Yang Wanming “The Chinese side vehemently repudiates the deputy’s words, and demands that he withdraw them immediately and apologize to the Chinese people”. The embassy stated that Congressman Eduardo Bolsonaro was a person with no international vision or common sense, who does not know China or the world.

Subsequently, the President of the Chamber of Deputies Rodrigo Maia apologized to the Chinese ambassador and stated, “The attitude does not match the importance of the Brazil-China strategic partnership and the diplomacy rites”. The Minister of Foreign Affairs said that the words of the then-Congressman Eduardo Bolsonaro “do not reflect the position of the Brazilian government”.

After this incident, on April 1, Congressman Eduardo Bolsonaro talked about China again, this time calling COVID-19 the Chinese virus. This time, the reply came through the Chinese consul in Rio de Janeiro who released a very tough letter for diplomatic criteria, in which it is questioned whether Congressman Eduardo Bolsonaro is “really so naive and ignorant” (Opera Mundi, 2020). After this new incident, former Minister of Education Abraham Weintraub made a post with a sinophobic content. Finally, on November 24, Congressman Eduardo Bolsonaro caused another diplomatic problem when he said that Brazil “supported a global alliance for a 5G without China’s espionage” (Gomes, 2020).

Brazil is experiencing an economic crisis aggravated by the coronavirus pandemic that made the country the second in the number of deaths due to COVID-19 with 179,765 deaths and the third with more infection with 6,781,799 confirmed cases. Thus, in the current context, successive accusations against China may represent a high price for Brazil. A similar example is an Australian case that was taxed on several products exported to China.

It is important to analyze the behavior of the Brazilian government in relation to China in a broader perspective. Brazilian foreign policy has opted for a radical break from the pragmatism and realism that has guided diplomacy in recent years. This new behavior is observed by the attempt to empty regional and international multilateral organizations, by attempts to deny the importance of environmental issues in the international debate, and to impose conservative moral guidelines.

However, despite the confrontational position, other channels of dialogue are being established. Brazilian states have used paradiplomacy to attract investment and do business with China and other countries. In the Chinese case, the state of São Paulo opened a business office in Shanghai in 2019 and, through the Butantan Institute, participated in testing the vaccine developed by the Chinese laboratory SinoVac. The Bolsonaro government’s confrontational stance puts the relationship between China and Brazil in its most troubled period in history. Nevertheless, the reaction of political, business, and diplomatic sectors signals the importance of Sino-Brazilian relations for Brazil.

All views expressed are of the writer and do not represent that of the sino-sphere.com

Pedro Fonseca is a Political Scientist with emphasis on International Relations – UFPE Master student of the Graduate Program of the Department of Political Science (PPGCP / UFPE) Associate researcher at the Institute of Asian Studies (IEASIA / UFPE) Twitter: @FonsecaPdro CV:


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