A version of this opinion piece was published in ElConfidencial.com
In his first official visit to China, Brazil’s President Bolsonaro will need to change the aggressive tone on China from his election campaign last year. In fact, Bolsonaro may need to add a small but significant change to his election mantra of “China wants to buy Brazil”, namely “I would be so pleased if China were interested in buying Brazil”.
The reason for his pilgrimage to Beijing is simple: Brazil’s massive public sector, with an increasing need for funding, continues to crowd out the private sector. This is depleting growth in a highly populated country, trying to escape the middle income trap. The need to reduce the size of the public sector, clearly stated in Bolsonaro’s presidential campaign, is all the more pressing as Brazil’s public debt could reach 100% of GDP soon if the pension reform that Bolsonaro is pushing through Congress gets derailed. And, even if such landmark reform is passed, public debt would still hover around 90% of GDP for the foreseeable future. Against this background, Bolsonaro has no choice but to privatise a good part of Brazil’s state-owned companies and, as Brazil’s data on past acquisitions already shows, there is no better buyer than China.
During the last few years, China invested as much as USD 30 billion in Brazil with a clear focus on power generation. In particular, one of China’s largest state-owned companies, State Grid, invested over USD 10 billion in 2017 to acquire CPFL Energy, one of Brazil’s largest electricity companies. Bolsonaro has a long list of companies, from Electrobras to Petrobras which need fresh capital to so China clearly comes handy in this endeavor.
Beyond the need for fresh overseas capital, the Brazilian economy, which has been stagnating for quite some time after a very difficult period in 2016, has benefitted from the trade war, being a major exporter of agriculture products and, in particular soy beans. The recently announced interim deal between China and the US, which exempts many of the US agriculture products from China’s import tariffs, is actually bad news for Brazil, at least as far as agriculture exports are concerned. However, Bolsonaro knows that China needs to find a long term solution to its dependence on agriculture imports so as to become more self-reliant in the light of the US increasingly harsh stance on China.
A strategic alliance between Brazil and China could be music to the ears for both Bolsonaro and Xi Jinping. However, Bolsonaro does not want to look like one more vassal, in the form of one more new entry to the long list of members of the Belt and Road Initiative. In such context, Xi Jinping might need to think of a more exclusive offer to the President of the largest economy in Latin America. At the end of the day, what really matters is that Bolsonaro needs China’s capital to reduce Brazil’s massive public debt and an export market for its agriculture products. China needs more allies at a time of strategic confrontation with the US. Hard to find a larger one than Brazil in the emerging world.