Threesomes of any kind are awkward arrangements. Diplomatic ones tend to be even more so. And whether it’s a strategic alliance between Russia, China & the US or the underlying tensions between the European Union’s Big Three, there always seems to be one party who feels like they are missing out on the action.
One such trio includes the the back-and-forth between Brazil, China and the US. While perhaps more of a tug-of-war than your standard ménage a trois, there are several interesting takeaways that can be made by comparing them together.
The most important? While the US have failed to show up for several key dates, China has emerged as an incredibly persistent suitor.
This isn’t an impression immediately deductible from the Twitter-sphere. Indeed, the attempt by the Bolsonaro family to rope their largest trading partner into a coronavirus culture war has led many commentators to ponder whether it would engender permanent damage to Sino-Brazilian relations. China, much like science or diversity quotas, is another one of Bolsonaro’s boogiemen.
Such a diagnosis seems hasty. Instead, it’s a reminder that the mud-slinging that occupies the front page is rarely the real story.
Ever since Bolsonaro’s inauguration in 2019, Xi Jinping has proven himself to be a reliable and committed trading partner.
When the Brazilian government realised that interest was lacking for their state oil auction in November, they immediately turned to China for help. Xi promptly responded by sending two state-owned Chinese firms to attend. As fate would have it, they were the only two foreign bidders to participate.
And then there is the Brazil-China fund, initiated under the auspices of former President Michel Temer but currently in operation today. 75% of the $20 billion dollar project is funded by China, and sits primed and ready to realise infrastructure projects in Brazil.
Once approved, they will join the massive investments already taking place in the state of Maranhão under China’s Belt & Road initiative. Their objective is simple. To secure Chinese access to food and mineral supplies while upgrading much of the region’s basic infrastructure.
That all of these projects look set to take place in Amazonian states is a blow to anyone who thought that a green new deal was a foregone conclusion post-lockdown.
Now contrast this with the unrequited love between Jair Bolsonaro and Donald Trump. While both leaders are fond of paraphrasing the other, it appears to be a classic case of actions speaking louder than words.
Both of Bolsonaro’s trips to the US have been short but sweet, followed by a domino of concessions on the Brazilian side. Meanwhile, Bolsonaro’s request to join the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development is still pending, with many assuming he will be left in the lurch.
Then there is the mysterious disappearance of 600 ventilators that were on their way to the North East of Brazil via Miami, assumed by many to have been confiscated by the Trump government. While not entirely surprising, the Lord of the Flies-esque behaviour is a reminder of what failure to prepare for a pandemic can do to international relations.
In trying to deduce who will be the outright winner for Brazilian affection, it’s helpful to consider each nation’s underlying intention. While China is looking to lay down deep socio-economic roots, America’s vision is half-hearted and mainly geopolitical, characterised by the desire to secure easy access to Venezuela should another opportunity for regime change re-emerge.
The usurping of vague US promises by determined Chinese investment is a trend that can be observed across the globe. However, it’s a political U-turn that might prove challenging for Jair Bolsonaro. After spending months peddling Wuhan conspiracy theories, one wonders how his base will react to the idea of Chinese-backed infrastructure projects snaking into the heart of the Amazon.
The episode provides yet more evidence of Bolsonaro’s tenuous position as Head of State in a government with clear, enduring ambition. Jostling at the helm is Vice President Hamilton Mourão, an ultra-conservative General, whose schmoozing of Chinese delegates is well documented.
As the coronavirus continues to reveal the cracks in the populist facade, one can’t help but wonder whether the days of sycophantic bromance between Bolsonaro and Trump are numbered. Next in line would be a steely union between Xi Jinping, Mike Pence and General Mourão. For supporters of democracy, gay rights and the environment, the follow-up tryst might prove more troubling than the original.