In his research article “Missing the China factor: evidence from Brazil and Mexico,” with Fabrício H. Chagas-Bastos and Rafael R. Ioris, Marco Cepik presents us with his academic focus in Latin America studies through Brazilian lenses. Our interview aims at addressing this article’s findings, which touches on one of the most important topics of current international politics: China’s presence in Latin America.
Bruna Rohr Reisdoerfer
Interviewee: Prof. Dr. Marco Aurélio Chaves Cepik
Interviewer: Bruna Rohr Reisdoerfer, M.A.*
Edited and reviewed by Anna Paula Bennech and Giovanna Imbernon
Prof. Dr. Marco Cepik has extensive experience in three distinct areas of knowledge: International Security, Intelligence Studies, and Digital Government. He is currently based in Porto Alegre, South of Brazil, as an Associated Professor at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS). He published eleven books and more than seventy scientific articles and book chapters in Portuguese, English, and Spanish. Prof. Dr. Cepik holds a Ph.D. in Political Science (IUPERJ, 2001). He has been a post-doctoral visiting professor at Oxford University and Naval Post Graduate School (NPS), among other institutions in Latin America, the United States, and Europe.
China’s rapid economic growth created new challenges and opportunities for Latin America over the 2000s, especially for Brazil. Most of the literature analyzes this phenomenon from how the Latin countries deal with the Chinese wave of commodity-based prosperity. Still, your research efforts focus on analyzing it from a more strategic perspective, giving more agency for Brazil. Thus, how do you see how Brazil assessed the outcomes from China’s presence in Latin America during the 2000s?
Between 2000 and 2014, the Brazilian government made a great effort to improve the country’s diplomatic and international economic insertion. In the case of China, we shall recall the joint initiative to create the BRICS group (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa), which matured between 2006 and 2010. Likewise, the two countries have cooperated in other multilateral initiatives that sought to deconcentrate the power in the international system, such as the G20, CELAC, AIIB, and the New Development Bank. During Lula’s presidency (2003-2010), the two countries signed 30 new bilateral cooperation agreements in various areas. In 2012, during Roussef’s presidency (2011-2016), Brazil and China elevated their relationship to a Global Strategic Partnership. In economic terms, China has been the most important trade partner of Brazil since 2009. In 2020, 32% of Brazilian exports headed to China ($ 67.7 billion). The peak of Chinese investments in Brazil was 2010. However, according to the Brazil-China Business Council (CEBC, in Portuguese), between 2007 and 2020, Chinese companies invested $ 66.1 billion in 176 actual projects. Despite such strong evidence of a successful relationship thriving in less than 20 years, assessments and opinions in Brazil regarding China’s role in Latin America tend to vary according to three cleavages: ideology (along the left-right continuum), interests (commodity exporters and national industrial owners), and knowledge (lesser information, worse expectations). For example, during the worst months of the COVID-19 pandemic (so far), the Bolsonaro government deliberately jeopardized China’s cooperation with Brazil to control the disease and its health and economic externalities.
China is already one of the most important economic partners of all Latin American countries. That is to say that the insertion of China covers all the subcontinent and is also vital in Mexico, on the US borders. Do you see that this geographical proximity with the US could have different impacts on how Brazilian and Mexican governments dealt with the Chinese presence in the region during the 2000s?
In the National Security Strategy issued in 2017, the Trump government declared that China was trying to pull Latin America and the Caribbean into its orbit “through state-led investment.” Since then, the US government has pressured (without much success) against the participation of Chinese companies in sectors such as energy, transport, and telecommunications. In the case of Brazil’s recent 5G public auction, the US government lobbied for but failed to prevent the bandwidth acquirers (Claro, Vivo, Tim, Sercomtel, Algar Telecom, Winity II, Brisanet, Consórcio 5G Sul, Neko, Fly Link, and Cloud2u) from using equipment from Huawei. In Mexico and Colombia, countries closely allied to Washington, economic and diplomatic relations with China were less intense and positive. Mexico and China decided to elevate their diplomatic ties (formally established in 1972) to the category of a “Strategic Integral Association” in 2013. However, even the Presidency of López Obrador has been constrained by Mexico’s dependency on the US. According to Tzili-Apango and Legler (2020), article 32.10 of the US Mexico Canada Trade Agreement (USMCA) intends to deter the signatories from pursuing trade arrangements with a “non-market economy.” Although China is not mentioned explicitly, this article is considered an anti-China clause, reinforced by explicit threats against Mexico participating in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). In the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, China’s willingness to help Mexico and Obrador’s necessity of direct investments in the oil and transport infrastructures seem to have created a new dynamic. It remains to be seen if it will be sufficient to overcome trade imbalances, direct competition in third markets for industrialized goods (mainly the US), and the pressure from Washington.
What were the differences in how the two more prominent countries in Latin America (Brazil and Mexico) sought to improve their positions in the international arena regarding their relations with China during the 2000s? Are there variations across different presidencies in each country?
Between 2000 and 2020, Brazil had five presidents (Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Lula da Silva, Dilma Rousseff, Michel Temer, and Jair Bolsonaro), while Mexico had four presidents (Vicente Fox, Felipe Calderón, Enrique Peña Nieto, and Andrés López Obrador). In the first decade of the 21st century, the international insertion strategies of Brazil and Mexico were quite different. During the coalition governments led by the PSDB and the PT, Brazil reinforced regional integration initiatives and sought more autonomous international action vis-à-vis the wealthiest and most powerful countries. Under the leadership of the PAN, Mexico has deepened its dependence and association with the United States. The prolonged economic and political crisis in Brazil since 2015, with the ousting of Dilma Rousseff and a shift to the right characterized by increasingly brutal neoliberal policies and conservative socio-cultural values, contrasts with the Mexican attempts (under the presidencies of Peña Nieto and Obrador) to gain greater international autonomy and move away from the neoliberal-war on drugs combo. The last two decades have been characterized, in both countries, by intense presidential diplomacy. In the case of Brazil, Lula’s enormous international prestige can be contrasted with the current President Bolsonaro, who practices a sort of presidential anti-diplomacy and is rightly despised by the international community. In the case of Mexico, the international performance of Felipe Calderón was clearly inferior to that of Fox (PAN), Obrador (MORENA) and even Peña Nieto (PRI). During his tenure (2012-2018), Peña Nieto sought to expand direct contacts with Chinese leaders and reconnect Mexico with Latin America, especially after failing to engage with President Trump meaningfully. Pressured by the economic crisis and the Covid-19 pandemic, López Obrador’s international agenda has been quite cautious, although, under Mexico’s pro-tempore presidency, CELAC held a crucial summit in 2021.
Given the growing interstate rivalry between the US and China and the relative decline of the Western world order, do you think Brazil has space in the international arena to have agency or it is destined to stay under US influence?
To regain relevance in world politics, Brazil first needs to reverse the self-destructive tendencies caused by its vast inequalities and the increasingly predatory behavior of significant portions of its business and political elites. Second, Brazil and Mexico need to cooperate with other Latin American countries to rebuild regional capacity to collaborate in the international system, both in the political and economic spheres. Third, Brazil and other Latin American, African, and Asian countries need to pressure China, the United States, and the European Union to share a constructive leadership to help the world overcome complex challenges, from the pandemic to global warming, the elimination of poverty and the significant reduction of inequalities (the UN Development Goals). The example of some ASEAN countries, which have a security alignment with Washington and an economic alignment with Beijing (hedging), will be challenging to sustain in case of further deterioration of relations between China and the United States. The existence of common problems for humanity makes us all dependent, in large part, on the viability of more robust cooperation between the United States, Europe, and China.
* Bruna Rohr Reisdoerfer is a Defense and International Relations Analyst. Ph.D. visitor on the Professorship of European Studies and International Relations from the Julius-Maximilians Universität Würzburg. Master’s in Military Sciences from Brazilian Army Command and General Staff College (ECEME) (2018). Bachelor of International Relations from UFRGS (2015). She took part in visits to various strategic facilities of the Brazilian army. She has done field research in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), European Union Military Committee, German Military Representation in EU, European Union Military Staff, European Parliament, and German Federal Foreign Office. She has scientific production in the areas of Defence Cooperation in Europe, Regional Integration, Brazilian Defense Policy, and International Security. Member of the Brazilian Defence Studies Association (ABED). E-mail: email@example.com.