Brazil’s new president seeks validation and support from China and the U.S. This presents challenges — and opportunities.
By Marco Rubio
It sounds paradoxical, but President Lula da Silva of Brazil is seeking closer ties with both the United States and Communist China.
Lula’s administration claims he will keep Brazil “firmly [in] the democratic camp.” At the same time, Lula chose to meet with Wang Qishan, a close ally of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) General Secretary Xi Jinping, the day after his inauguration. He then publicly proposed that the Latin American trade group Mercosur establish a free trade agreement with “our Chinese friends.”
Given Lula’s leftist ties, some analysts believe his ambivalence is a smokescreen for a realignment with Beijing. But the key to interpreting Lula’s actions is his stated commitment to reassert his country as an international power, to place it “back on the world stage.” In foreign policy, Brazil’s president will be pragmatic. For now, that means he will take what he can get from both the U.S. and the CCP — so long as it benefits his agenda.
America remains the partner of choice for most countries in our region, and Brazil is no exception. That is why Lula is meeting with the Biden Administration before he visits Beijing. He knows that his people share democratic values with the U.S. and that policymakers in Washington will not threaten their sovereignty like Beijing.
But if America is Brazil’s partner of choice, Beijing is too often seen as the partner of necessity. When Lula needs large amounts of cash and no questions asked, he will turn to China.
This is bad news for everyone in our region. Wherever Chinese companies go, they bring shoddy craftsmanship and horrific labor conditions in their wake. What’s worse, they bring the CCP, which works to expand its political and military influence through everything from infrastructure laced with spyware to mass surveillance systems to secret overseas police stations. The history of China’s economic projects is a history of Beijing holding foreign governments hostage through debt-trap diplomacy.
But while Lula’s openness to Beijing is a mistake, it also reveals the failure of America’s international financing efforts. Instead of offering viable alternatives to Chinese investment, the Biden Administration has used U.S. agencies to force pie-in-the-sky climate goals and woke ideology on people who neither want nor need them.
That will have to change if we are to keep authoritarian regimes from dominating our hemisphere, and now is the time to do it. In his meeting with Brazil’s new president, President Biden must take a firm line, holding Lula to account for his friendliness toward the CCP — as well as other bloody handed dictatorships, like those of Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. At the same time, Biden must work with Congress to reshape our international financing efforts, so that countries do not feel forced to buy into Beijing’s empty promises.
Only by presenting strength and offering meaningful cooperation can the U.S. avoid the pitfalls and seize the opportunities of the 21st century.