The Debate

Brazil is Clueless About the Indo-Pacific

Brazil has potential to become a global player; but Brasilia has not clearly defined its grand strategic vision.

Dawisson Belém Lopes
By Dawisson Belém Lopes and João Paulo Nicolini Gabriel for
Brazil is Clueless About the Indo-Pacific
Credit: Unsplash

The Diplomat recently published an essay titled “Brazil’s Strategic Expansion in the Indo-Pacific,” written by Balaji Chandramohan. The article claims that South America’s largest country is also expected to expand its position in the Indo-Pacific region due to the arguable existence of “a national grand strategic vision.” Such an initiative would be aimed to morph Brazil from a middle-power into a great power in the Western Hemisphere.

Such contention, according to the author, hangs onto some evidence: (a) enhancement of Brazilian diplomatic, economic and commercial ties with major Asian powers and African countries such as the Portuguese-speaking nations; (b) military cooperation with South American countries and the African Union; and (c) improvements on the relationship between regional structures like Mercosur and the Pacific Alliance, a trade bloc composed by Latin American states. It finally concludes proposing Brazil to develop its maritime capabilities, join the Pacific Alliance, invest in the modernization of its military forces, and consider the possibilities of becoming a regular participant of the RIMPAC naval exercises – an invitation that Brasilia withdrew twice (2016 and 2018) – in order to boost its geopolitical position into the Indo-Pacific region.

We take these statements with a grain of salt. Chandramohan left a few unanswered questions in his article: What does he understand by Brazilian grand strategy or its policy towards the Indo-Pacific region? Are there elements and patterns that could characterize Brasilia’s priorities in military, diplomatic, and economic fields? Which is the relationship between modernizing military forces and this supposed Brazilian strategy to the region? 

The author seems to be misled in his attempt to draw a Brazilian strategy toward the Indo-Pacific region, as if Brasilia were embedded in such context. Chandramohan named many important cooperative initiatives joined by Brazilian institutions in Africa or the furtherance of commercial ties with Asian nations, but we believe they do not attest the existence of a full-fledged strategy toward the Indo-Pacific region. Nor do they demonstrate that Brazil is following — or crafting — a robust and lasting policy to address the emergence of a not-so-Western world. Brasilia, for example, has not decided to incorporate into its lexicon the term Indo-Pacific, which gained momentum recently with the unveiling of the United States regional strategy and the publication of ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific.  

First and foremost, we should begin with a discussion on whether Brazilian actions are even able to respond accordingly to the “easternization” conundrum. A grand strategy presupposes policies clustered inside a geo-strategical plan; that is, the formulation of policies based on the state’s highest priorities which are connected to a final goal. In fact, Asia changed from terra incognita to the huge market that accounts for more than 40 percent of Brazilian exports in 2019 – 81.8 percent of this amount comprises agricultural products. However, we expressly disagree with the claim that commodities exports can make up Brazil’s grand strategy. This is not a sufficient condition to claim the existence of a long-term plan to turn the state into a global power. All peripheral states do the same. Whereas China is pushing the demand on minerals, meat and soybeans, different countries will send to Asia the lion’s share of their farm products. Analysts are wary, therefore, that Brasilia is entering a new “colonial” cycle while making it more vulnerable to global economic crisis. Africa, in turn, represents only 3.37 percent of Brazilian exports, so the South American country still lags behind other rising powers, such as India or China, in enhancing commercial ties inside the continent.

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Chandramohan’s argument that Brazil has improved diplomatic ties with Indo-Pacific states is true, but should not be overstretched. Although presenting actual initiatives in order to corroborate his ideas, e.g. the Community of Portuguese-Speaking Countries, he does not take into consideration the acknowledged issues with which Brazilian diplomatic corps have coped. Asia seems to be overlooked by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, its representations are understaffed and few officials are fluent speakers of eastern languages. In Africa, the Brazilian government has studied the possibility of shutting down some diplomatic offices considered less relevant due to the current lack of resources. 

In terms of military modernization, we do not challenge the importance of renewing defensive capabilities. Nevertheless, the question to be posed is, why is it related to Brazilian policy toward the Indo-Pacific region? Security variables, as one could expect, prevail in his analysis about the Indo-Pacific region. However, international dynamics are grasped differently by each country and region, taking into consideration national ambitions and perceptions of threat. The United Stated and France have developed security-minded policies toward the Indo-Pacific, while Brazil faces its own challenges in the neighborhood, namely the political turmoil in Peru and Ecuador and the everlasting crisis in Venezuela. It would be quite curious and even improbable to come across official Brazilian documents claiming the importance of safeguarding the freedom of the seas in the South China Sea – in the way Japan, India or Australia do. As a matter of fact, Brazil’s White Papers on Defence were released in 2012, so there is no official data from which one can infer this relationship between the modernization of Brazil’s national army and the disputes inside the Indo-Pacific region. 

Furthermore, the “Bolsonaro factor” is another relevant topic. President Jair Bolsonaro was sworn in back in January promising to realign Brazilian foreign policy. Brasilia has entered into controversy with European leaders and undertook an unusual position on the Amazon burning. Instead of assuring the maintenance of environmentalism as an important guideline for Brazilian diplomacy, Bolsonaro chose a confrontational stance against most of the international community’s representatives. Brazil’s foreign policy hence did a turnaround and assumed a supposedly anticommunist, pro-Christian, and pro-West attitude. Bolsonaro expresses admiration for U.S. President Donald Trump and attempts to emulate his mercurial political manners. Therefore, it is hard to guess what exactly Chandramohan means when he says that now “Brazil will adopt a tough posture when it comes establishing its strategic priorities.”

China is another thorny issue for Bolsonaro, who is expected to visit Beijing and Tokyo in November. Chinese-Brazilian ties are viewed with reticence by some of Bolsonaro’s supporters, who would rather see an unconditional alignment with Washington. Bolsonaro also skipped a conversation with Xi Jinping during the last G-20 Summit, due to a 20-minute delay on Xi’s part. Chandramohan asserted that Brazil has engaged in the Belt and Road Initiative. In fact, it is a far more complex topic, since the federal state of São Paulo – Brazil’s largest and richest one – demonstrated interest in joining this Chinese ambitious initiative, but Brasilia is still reluctant to make such a move. It is important to bear in mind that in 2017, during president Michel Temer’s term, Brazil gave a scant degree of attention to the Belt and Road Initiative Forum, while Argentina and Chile dispatched their heads of state to the event.     

Chandramohan certainly has a point when he says that Brazil has potential to become a global player. The problem is that Brasilia has not clearly defined what its grand strategic vision is. All taken into account, Bolsonaro’s ultimate choices in foreign policy are uncertain bets. Instead of driving Brazil to a new global status, they could instead prove harmful to its international reputation.

Dawisson Belém Lopes is a professor of international and comparative politics at the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG) and a researcher of the National Council for Technological and Scientific Development (CNPq) in Brazil. He tweets at @dbelemlopes.

João Paulo Nicolini Gabriel is a PhD candidate in Political Science at the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG).