Seeking a reset, Brazil's Lula heads to China

Seeking a reset, Brazil's Lula heads to China

Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, shown here in Brasilia on March 20, 2023, is seeking to refresh his country's ties with China
Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, shown here in Brasilia on March 20, 2023, is seeking to refresh his country's ties with China

BRASíLIA - Brazil's leftist leader Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva will meet Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing next week, where he hopes to reinforce trade, discuss international mediation in Ukraine, and reclaim his country's role in global geopolitics.

After a period of isolation under his far-right predecessor, Jair Bolsonaro, Lula is wasting no time in renewing ties with allies.

Just three months into his latest term as president -- he has already visited Argentina and the United States -- the six-day trip to China, Brazil's largest trading partner, is key to Lula's ambitions.

"Lula's visit is a very clear signal that he wants a high-level bilateral dialogue and a deepening of this relationship," Evandro Menezes de Carvalho, a China expert at the Getulio Vargas Foundation, told AFP.

Analysts say Chinese hopes are also high. Officials in Beijing see Brazil -- a leader in the global south -- as a linchpin in their strategic and economic plans.

Ukraine will be a main topic of discussion during the visit, which officially begins Tuesday, with Lula hoping to promote his proposal for mediated talks to end Russia's invasion of the country.

Xi himself will be fresh from talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, where he presented himself as a peace-seeking mediator -- though he made no apparent breakthrough.

Ukraine's Western allies have heavily criticized Xi's approach as tacit support for Moscow's invasion.

But Lula sees China as an "important ally" of his own initiative of creating a group of countries seeking a negotiated peace deal, the government in Brasilia said in a statement.

Lula, who has been president of Brazil twice before, is keen to position the South American giant as a go-between, like he did during his second term, which ended in 2010, during nuclear discussions between Iran and the United States.

However, his diplomatic stock took a hit last year when he came under fire for claiming that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was "as responsible" for the war as Putin.

He has also refused to join Western nations in sending weapons to Ukraine to help it defend itself.

- 'Clear signal' -

Trade will also be high on the agenda in Beijing, with a large business and ministerial entourage from Brazil.

Bolsonaro also visited China, but that relationship soured after he joined then-US president Donald Trump in blaming Beijing for the Covid-19 pandemic.

That did not affect business dealings, though, with commercial exchanges last year surpassing $150 billion.

Brazil received a boost on Thursday when China decided to lift a month-long suspension of Brazilian beef imports after an isolated case of mad cow disease was confirmed in February.

The country wants to promote "trade, concentrating on the diversification of products... but also to bring Chinese investments and advance in other guidelines," said Menezes.

He pointed to the potential for developing technology like semiconductors and artificial intelligence, or resuming projects for a bullet train between Brazilian cities.

Brazil was also the main destination for Chinese investment in Latin America between 2007 and 2020, worth $70 billion according to the Brazil-China Business Council.

The money was mostly invested in oil and electricity generation, but also in the automobile industry, heavy machinery, mining, agriculture and information technology.

Brazil is a huge market for Chinese companies, such as technology giant Huawei.

And an agreement between the two countries to use the yuan in bilateral multi-million dollar trade could help internationalize the Chinese currency.

"The size of Brazil and the size of the relationship also means that successful engagement with Brazil more than any other country supports China's global strategic economic goals," said Evan Ellis, China and Russia expert at the Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies in Washington.

- 'Strategic partnership' -

"It is certainly about economics and business and there is a huge business partnership, but one should not lose sight of the fact that there is also a strategic partnership" based on Brazil's role as a leader in the global south, said Ellis.

Lula made multilateral diplomacy a priority in his previous two terms as president, and visited Beijing three times.

It was on his watch that the BRICS group of emerging economies comprising Brazil, India, China, Russia and South Africa was created.

In Beijing, Lula will also meet Premier Li Qiang and Zhao Leji, president of the Popular Assembly.

He will head to Shanghai where his domestic political ally Dilma Rousseff, who succeeded him as president in 2011, is due to take over as head of the New Development Bank, also known as the BRICS bank.

Lula's visit was delayed by one day due to a case of "mild pneumonia," his office said, now departing on Sunday.

On his way home, Lula will visit the United Arab Emirates for two days.

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