The Chinese government was trying to make peace with the frontrunner in yesterday’s Brazilian presidential election, Social Liberal Party candidate Jair Bolsonaro, whose China-bashing threatened to chill a profitable trading relationship that has benefited both countries.
An ardent nationalist, Bolsonaro was expected to win a landslide victory.
Chinese diplomats based in Brasilia have over the past two weeks met twice with top Bolsonaro advisors, participants in the meetings said.
Their aim is to highlight cooperation with Latin America’s largest country, whose grain and minerals have fueled China’s rise, while lifting millions of Brazilians from poverty in the resulting commodities boom.
Bolsonaro has portrayed China, his nation’s largest trading partner, as a predator looking to dominate key sectors of its economy.
With its own economy slowing, China cannot afford to become embroiled in another costly trade war like that which has erupted between Beijing and Washington.
Two-way trade between China and Brazil stood at US$75 billion last year, according to Brazilian official statistics.
China has invested US$124 billion in Brazil since 2003, mostly in the oil, mining and energy sectors, and it is eager to bankroll railway, port and other infrastructure projects there to speed the movement of its Brazilian grain.
However, the far-right Bolsonaro, much like US President Donald Trump, has criticized China repeatedly on the campaign trail, saying the Chinese should not be allowed to own Brazilian land or control key industries.
“The Chinese are not buying in Brazil. They are buying Brazil,” Bolsonaro has said repeatedly.
Companies in the crosshairs include China Molybdenum Co, which bought a US$1.7 billion niobium mine in 2016 that Bolsonaro said Brazil should develop itself.
Niobium is used as an additive to steel to make it stronger and lighter. It is used in cars, buildings, jet engines and a host of other applications.
Brazil controls about 85 percent of the world’s supply and Bolsonaro said he wants his nation to reap the benefits.
Bolsonaro is also on record opposing a planned privatization of some assets of state-owned utility Centrais Eletricas Brasileiras SA (Eletrobras) on concerns that Chinese buyers would win the bid.
Officials at China Molybdenum declined requests for comment, but six senior executives at Chinese companies operating in Brazil said they were watching Bolsonaro’s remarks with varying degrees of concern.
“We are worrying a bit about some of his extreme views,” one Chinese infrastructure executive said. “He is on guard against China.”
Bolsonaro’s friendly leanings toward Taiwan are likewise vexing to Beijing.
Bolsonaro in February became the first Brazilian presidential candidate to visit Taiwan since Brasilia recognized Beijing as the sole Chinese government under the “one China” policy in the 1970s.
The Chinese embassy in Brazil issued a letter condemning Bolsonaro’s trip as an “affront to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of China.”
Bolsonaro’s combative stance is in stark contrast to the rest of Latin America, whose leaders have welcomed Chinese investment, loans and commodities purchases.
It could eventually put him at odds with Brazil’s powerful farm and mining industries, for which China is an indispensable customer.
Shares of Brazilian miner Vale SA, the world’s largest iron ore producer, hit an all-time high last month on strong Chinese demand for its high-quality ore.