Geopolitical Diary: A 'Dragon-Jaguar' Alliance?
May 21, 2009
Chinese President Hu Jintao and Brazilian President Luiz Inacio
Lula da Silva oversaw the signing of 13 strategic cooperation accords
during a Brazilian delegation’s visit to Beijing, which ended Wednesday.
Among the key deals were a $10 billion loan from China to Brazil’s
state-owned Petroleo Brasileiro SA (Petrobras); the deal calls for
Petrobras to deliver up to 200,000 barrels of crude oil per day for the
next decade to China. Also discussed was the possibility of conducting
bilateral trade in the two countries’ domestic currencies instead of in
The visit, and particularly the economic deals, provides new
evidence for the thesis thatChina and Brazil are on a path toward a
close alliance that one day might blossom into a counterweight to U.S.
hegemony. Among the many serious adherents to this thesis is U.S.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who at the beginning of May equated
China’s dealings in Latin America to those of Iran: She said she was
disturbed by Beijing’s moves to strengthen economic and political
connections on the continent.
Before declaring the definitive beginnings of a “Dragon-Jaguar”
alliance and delving into its implications for the United States,
however, it is useful to explore the geopolitical impediments to such a
partnership. Alliances, in particular the long-term strategic kind, are
at least nominally underpinned by four general factors: common political
heritage, feasibility of economic cooperation, common military aims and
common enemy or threat. In terms of political heritage, China and Brazil
share only a very tenuous link to the Portuguese imperial expansion — a
link that defines Brazil on many levels but whose legacy for China does
not extend beyond the gambling paradise of Macao.
In terms of military aims and military threats, the two countries
could not be further apart.China is a land power looking to expand its
naval capabilities so that it can project power into the contentious and
volatile South China Sea, where it competes with Malaysia,
thePhilippines, Taiwan and Vietnam. Furthermore, Beijing’s main concerns
are the nearby marine trade routes that it does not control due to U.S.
naval dominance, such as the Taiwan Strait and the Strait of Malacca.
By contrast, Brazil’s immediate security imperative is to control
its own territory — including the largely secure southern border with
its only real regional rival, Argentina, as well as the wild Amazon rain
forest. This makes Brazil’s strategic objectives inherently
inward-looking and land-based, and it means Brazil has very little to
contribute at this point to China’s quest to secure ocean transport. In
the long term, Brazil is certainly interested in developing its own
naval capacity, and it sees its position in the South Atlantic as a
potential strategic lever in the realm of ocean control. However, Brazil
has turned to France, not China, for aid in developing much of its naval
capacity, and it has a great deal of room to grow before it becomes a
global player in this arena.
Economic cooperation does constitute a strong link between China
and Brazil, and it is clear that trade between them is growing rapidly.
Here again, however, China and Brazil are separated by great distance.
Commodity exports to China will have to wait for the Panama canal
expansion (projected to be completed in 2014) before they can begin in
earnest, but even with an expanded Panama Canal, the trade routes
between China and Brazil will be three times longer than current routes
linking China and the Middle East — not an economically discountable
distance. Militarily speaking, because they have to go through the
Panama Canal and across the breadth of the Pacific Ocean, trade links
between China andBrazil will be just as vulnerable to U.S. naval
interdiction as China’s links to Middle Eastern energy producers.
What today might seem to be an obvious marriage of Brazil’s
commodity exports andChina’s insatiable appetite for energy and minerals
may not last forever. For one thing,Brazil is neither a developing
nation nor a Middle Eastern economy based on commodity exports; it is an
industrializing country with a diversified economy and no plans to
become the Nigeria of Latin America. Its recent spate of oil discoveries
notwithstanding, Brazil still has designs on becoming a major industrial
power and a financial center for Latin America. With a population of 200
million and a multitrillion-dollar economy that ranks in the world’s top
10, Brazil’s rise as an industrial power means its commodity-exporting
days are numbered: Ultimately, it aims to satisfy its own growing energy
and industrial demand. If such an economic path seems farfetched, one
has only to look at Chinese energy needs of 30 years ago and imagine
what Brazil might look like in 2040.
As Brazil industrializes, it will become a direct trade rival for
China, particularly since the U.S.consumer market will be the
destination for the bulk of manufactured products from both states. The
United States is China’s main export market (when accounting for
secondary trade flows that include the entire Chinese supply chain), a
key variable for China’s export-driven economy. Beijing will be
extremely wary of anything that overtly threatens that trade
relationship. China and Brazil are already global competitors in
medium-haul regional airplane production; the geography of both
countries requires a robust regional airplane industry to facilitate
internal transportation. They eventually will be pitted against each
other in offshore oil exploration, and it is not implausible that they
will compete in other industries as well.
Both China and Brazil therefore are more interested in getting the
most out of the United States as a market than in forming a
“Dragon-Jaguar” economic partnership that would underpin an aggressive
political posture toward Washington. This also means that – much as
during the Cold War, when Washington broke apart the Sino-Soviet
relationship — a Brazil-China alliance will be one that United States
could fracture by giving one side concessions over the other.
For China in particular, the cost-benefit analysis of meddling in
the U.S. hemisphere discounts an alliance with Brazil. There are simply
too many ways for the United States to counter China in its own
neighborhood — especially by tightening the screws on its sea lanes —
for Beijing to risk irking the Americans. Brazil, on the other hand, has
very little to gain from making China — a limited naval power on the
other side of the planet with which it does not even share an ocean —
its main security partner. The United States would surround Brazil with
regional rivals and thereby thwart Brazilian power projection in Latin
America, with Beijing too far away to help.
By forming a partnership with China, Brazil would create a military
threat for itself that previously did not exist, rather than increase
security through an alliance.