Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has thrown out the rule book for dealing with China.
The far-right leader, who many have likened to former US president Donald Trump, calls it how he sees it – even if what he sees is, frankly, a bit out there.
On Wednesday, he continued his assault on Beijing with some wild claims about the origins of COVID-19 – a virus which has so far killed more than 400,000 people in Brazil and infected more than 14 million.
He said coronavirus may have been made in a laboratory to wage “biological warfare”.
“It’s a new virus. Nobody knows whether it was born in a laboratory or because a human ate some animal they shouldn’t have,” Mr Bolsonaro said.
“But the military knows all about chemical, biological and radiological warfare. Could we be fighting a new war? I wonder. Which country’s GDP has grown the most?”
He did not name China, but the country where the pandemic began was the only G20 economy to grow last year, notching a 2.3 per cent expansion.
Brazil’s GDP shrank 4.1 per cent and the United States’ GDP fell 3.5 per cent.
Mr Bolsonaro and his inner circle have a history of inflammatory comments on China that have sometimes aggravated relations with Brazil’s biggest trading partner.
In March, the President replaced former foreign minister Ernesto Araujo, who had denounced “Maoist China” and its plan for “world domination” with career diplomat Carlos Franca.
The move was widely seen as aimed at mending ties.
Bolsonaro’s comments not well received
But the theory that COVID-19 emerged in a virology lab in the city of Wuhan is a touchy subject for China which strongly denies the allegation.
A World Health Organisation report concluded in March that it was “extremely unlikely” the virus originated in a lab. However, WHO experts said they had encountered difficulties accessing raw data when they visited Wuhan.
Mr Bolsonaro’s comments were not received well inside Brazil. As CNN reported, Senator Omar Aziz, who is the president of the Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry, said the inflammatory words were likely to complicate things further with China.
“Today was bad, you see, and it calls for chemical warfare and such,” he said.
Experts have written at length about the strained relationship between Brazil and China.
Washington-based think tank the Brookings Institution published an article last year detailing how Mr Bolsonaro’s strategy with China differed from that of previous leaders.
“Brazil is China’s most important economic and political partner in South America, as well as a key participant in the Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa (BRICS) grouping of emerging powers that China increasingly leads,” the article reads.
“When it comes to global aspirations, China and Brazil have historically been in sync on their critiques of the liberal international order, if not on their preferred remedies.
“Since President Jair Bolsonaro assumed office in January 2019, this historical pattern has been up-ended. Bolsonaro and his foreign policy team have adopted a strongly pro-US (specifically pro-president Donald Trump) agenda internationally, including engaging in frequent critiques of China.
“Domestically, the partnership with China has been controversial with some sectors. Specifically, the partnership is criticised by the Brazilian manufacturing sector, which faces strong competition from Chinese products and lacks reciprocal access to Chinese market, and by nationalist-populist voters who support Bolsonaro.
“Agricultural export interests, by contrast, favour a strong relationship with Beijing because China is a major market for their products.”
China hits back at Brazil over criticism
The article highlighted how China had hit back at Brazil over its ongoing criticism.
“While initially restrained in response to criticism from the Bolsonaro administration, Chinese diplomats have struck back in 2020 in interviews and op-eds with local media. This confrontational dynamic is a marked departure from the historical trend in Brazil-China relations, which has trended toward deeper economic and political relations.
“China has a long-term interest in a close diplomatic relationship with Brazil, important both for its strategy in Latin America and maximising its global leadership. Beijing is unlikely to want this tension to become the ‘new normal’ in its relations with Brazil.
“In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Bolsonaro administration has steered an erratic course between conciliatory rhetoric, seeking Chinese assistance against the novel coronavirus, and further criticism. Despite the preferences of its current foreign policy team, Brazil has important long-term strategic interests in maintaining a working partnership with China.”
China has not responded well to criticism from any country of its handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Australia’s calls for an independent inquiry into the origins of the virus have led to an all-time low for Australia-China relations.
– with AFP
By Rohan Smith