To “B” or not to “B”: The BRICS, Brazil and Bolsonaro


Authors: Mateus Bilhar, Richard J. Cook, Han Zhaoying*

Two decades on from O’Neill’s BRICS acronym, the bloc’s ability to influence global economic governance is now embattled with a range of challenges. Divergent intra-bloc perceptions, attenuated denominators, and individualized initiatives have potentially disrupted cohesion, arguably diluting its strategic importance as a greater focus now rests upon the disparity among BRICS constituents, dashing meaningful prospects of the bloc’s capacity to reform global economic governance, as it originally intended. While scholarly attention is equally disproportionate when evaluating the BRICS, it seems almost passé to contemplate the “B” in the acronym, Brazil. Considering status discrepancies, Brazil has also recently appeared dismissive when engaging with the bloc or with the individual members due to a U-turn on Brasilia’s foreign policy. So how should we gauge the “B” in the BRICS?

To “B” or not to BRICS

Formed around economic ‘potential’ per se, the BRICS constituents’ experiences and developmental modus operandi intended to represent rising economies’ interests in a world dominated by developed Western states and their economic regime(s), if not to offer alternative institutional arrangements. Crucially, the formation of the BRICS’s New Development Bank (NDB) and the Contingency Reserve Arrangement (CRA) in 2014, enabled optimistic scholarly overtones, posing whether the BRICS could evolve into a new model of global economic governance without the exclusive Western-centric political criteria. Despite such early appraisals, twelve years since its formation have now passed. The debate about the BRICS is now beset with issues of a fragmentated common purpose and an inability to marshal a collective order. Expressively, its constituents’ diverse political and economic systems fatigue the bloc more than strengthen its capability to promote coherent strategies and to make a global impact. Likewise, dissimilar levels of industrialization and economic output indicate significant disparities, not to mention unequal international status, such as Russia and China’s permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), which have led to mixed intra-bloc interests and demands.

As seen in the graph, the bloc’s economic weight strongly, if not solely, relies on China. Here, Russia, India, South Africa, and Brazil have demonstrated wariness over Beijing’s economic predominance while their respective industries appear threatened by China’s affordable commodities. Similarly, the bloc members have not been well receptive of China’s advantageous position in influencing and gaining centrality within the bloc, as illustrated by India’s apprehensiveness over Beijing’s proposal for a BRICS Plus arrangement in 2017. Yet, such critiques of Chinese politico-economic asymmetry must be weighed against a hard truth, that Beijing is the de facto driver of the bloc.

More importantly, efforts to achieve regional, or better still, great power status, and to influence global governance regimes as a ‘collective action bloc’ have shifted to the individual states’ agenda for respective regional primacy. Prima facie, great power aspirations and influencing contests have been identified and prioritized by some powers, specifically China, Russia, and India promoting competitive institutional projects (such as the BRI, EEU, and Act East Policy respectively), overshadowing the bloc’s achievements. Such developments cast a wider apprehension concerning the corroding factors of the BRICS’s cohesion and its ability to manage its members’ expectations for changes as a unified bloc. This has arguably shuffled the bloc’s strategic importance down the pecking order and replaced it with the individual states’ designs to orchestrate their own Grande institutional endeavors. Despite the challenges, it appears that the prospects for greater global influence and financial (sometimes political) reforms hold the bloc together, since the BRICS still embodies one of the leading non-Western frameworks to represent its constituents’ demands, those being to advance their representativity and interests to reform international financial institutions. Additionally, for the newly developing economies such as Brazil, the BRICS, as a loose institutional arrangement, convened an opportune avenue to expand its global footprint and regional status.

To “B” or not to Brazil

During the Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva administration (2003-2010) and its successor, Dilma Rousseff’s (2011-2016), Brasilia’s foreign policy aimed to promote its regional leadership candidature (acknowledging contenders such as Mexico and Argentina) through expansion of diplomatic partnerships (South-South cooperation) and non-Western alternatives for regional and global governance initiatives, such as the BRICS, Mercosur, and the Union of South American Nations. Here, Brazil’s status seeking endeavors were made possible and paired to a rapid economic development associated with industrialization efforts during earlier presidential administrations. According to the World Bank, Brasilia elevated its GDP from nearly USD 500 billion in 2003 to USD 2.6 trillion at its peak in 2011, laying the foundation for its efforts. Such a trend prompted economists to consider Brazil’s long-term economic potential, for instance, referring to the PricewaterhouseCoopers’ (PwC) “The World in 2050” key projections, Brazil is expected to become the world’s fifth largest economy by 2050 in terms of GDP with the potential to surpass all developed European economies.

This period of relative economic development coincided with the economic momentum of the other BRICS members. Already on the path to solidify regional influence via politico-economic indices in South America, Brazil was quick to embrace the bloc as an opportunity to gain greater international status and thereby reaffirm its emerging potential in the form of regional leadership. Noteworthy, were the efforts to gain a permanent seat at the UNSC by seeking support of BRICS constituents, Russia and China. Brasilia’s role in early conceptions of the BRICS initiated through the Brazil-India-South Africa (ISBA) Forum in 2003, already stressed the need for coordination on global issues, such as collective action against protectionism measurements concerning the Doha Round at the World Trade Organization (WTO). Equally noticeable, Brasilia’s achievements at international financial regimes continued via the BRICS, as quota reforms in the IMF (1.72% to 2.32%) stands as a remarkable example.

To “B” or not to Bolsonaro

Aware of the systemic pressures caused by the Sino-US peer competition, although more pronounced in the Asia-Pacific region, yet evidently proliferating across the globe, Brazil has felt the tremors and is struggling to cope with the security-economic playoff between these two Leviathans. Here, Brazil’s recent political readjustments, namely a strategic realignment with the United States and antagonistic rhetoric targeting China, aggravates the already questionable cohesion of the bloc by adding mixed preferences and demands, further undermining its coordination efforts and limiting its global impact.

Since 2019, President Jair Bolsonaro, following a right-wing conservative political agenda, sought to re-emphasize traditional partnerships with the West, centered on the US, diverging from his predecessors. Specifically, the Bolsonaro administration’s strikingly similar erratic rhetoric on international affairs with former US President Donald Trump, is certainly discernable, highlighting an anti-leftist and anti-globalist campaign, if not a popularist front. The Trump administration found a reliable partner in Brazil with Bolsonaro in its quest to counter growing Chinese influence in Washington’s ‘Latin American backyard’ and the wider Western hemisphere. As suggested during Bolsonaro’s official visit to Washington in 2019, commitments to the US-Brazil Security Forum to strengthen border security and information sharing, emphasized Brazil’s (a major non-NATO ally) desire for immediate realignment. As such, their relationship represented a central element of Bolsonaro’s personalistic presidency, being recognized as pro-Trump more than pro-US, as they displayed mutual skepticism over the role of international organizations, prioritizing instead bilateral relationships. Hence, earlier scholarly prognoses on whether a “Braxit” from the bloc could take place during the early days of his government were deemed plausible, yet not officially considered.

Once instrumental in criticizing the structure of the liberal international order, Sino-Brazilian relations have grown volatile due to Brasilia’s antagonistic rhetoric. Bolsonaro has periodically verbalized dissatisfactions over Chinese economic influence in Brazil, specifically due to market dependency on Chinese imports and investments tapping into its energy potential, minerals, and agricultural resources. Notwithstanding this, Brasilia cannot afford to ignore economic opportunities with China. Specifically, following the ‘Phase One’ trade deal of the Sino-US Trade War, Brazil’s soybean (as well as derivatives) exports to China made gains, raising from 53.8 million tons in 2017 to 68.8 million tons in 2018, acquiring over 80% of Brazil’s total soybean exports. Equally, other agricultural subsectors benefited, such as the export of beef and cellulose. As such, Brasilia could be considered a potential winner of the Sino-US Trade War, seeing a upturn  in exports to both China and the US since 2018.

Brasilia has found it challenging to follow Bolsonaro’s rhetoric while attempting to avoid upsetting an increasingly sensitive Beijing, its primary commercial partner. Here, some sort of decoupling appears unlikely given that Brazil still suffers from the aftermath of the 2015 Brazilian economic crisis. Recognizing the lack of alternative trade partners able to compensate the loss of the Chinese market, a more amenable tone with Beijing from Brasilia’s political elite was required. This was particularly noted in the 11th BRICS meeting in 2019 chaired by Brazil, whereupon Bolsonaro’s demeanor towards Beijing and the BRICS was modest compared to his early days of government. However, these pragmatic shifts for Bolsonaro were limited by restricting his BRICS’ presidency priorities into perhaps vague, if not, superficial issues of facile compromise, in areas such as digital economy, technology innovation, and combating transnational crime, while avoiding more substantial dialogues, for example, cancelling the BRICS outreach meeting with regional leaders.

To “B” or not to Bloc

Growing systemic pressures fueled by the Sino-US peer competition denote a new era of acrimonies and a new status quo of instability, calling into question states, institutions and blocs’ ability, if not their culpability to cope with emerging stresses. Despite Brazil’s political elite having already embarked on a strategic shift towards Washington, Beijing still represents significant potential for economic investments and benefits for the developing Brazilian economy. Furthermore, acknowledging the reduced commonality within the BRICS bloc, Brasilia has similarly deemphasized the grouping’s centrality to its revised foreign policy agenda, therefore adding divergent preferences into the bloc’s already fragmented cohesion. Here, the onset of these concerns elucidates difficult challenges, perhaps with lasting doubts about the robustness of the bloc, leaving a deeper question on whether the BRICS can meaningfully save itself from itself.

Despite some level of commonality still being noted, it seems unlikely to evolve into the once idealized functional bloc capable of impacting global economic governance. However, as perceived during the 13th BRICS Summit in 2021, shared issues still bind and motivate the BRICS’s constituents into dialogue.  Issues such as terrorism and narcotrafficking, and the desire to act on priority financial interests, trade, and sustainable development, attest that the bloc is not completely irrelevant or facing immediate demise. However, Brazil’s posture towards the BRICS may see a reverse when Brazilians go to the ballot box in October, with former President Lula currently leading polls. Despite no clear foreign policy signal, Lula’s more amenable relation with the bloc would likely be repeated, as he is likely to roll back Bolsonaro’s legacy. So, in 2022 a lack of fanfare for the BRICS in Brasilia is noticeable, but let’s not write off the “B”RICS just yet.

*Richard J. Cook Ph.D. is a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow of International Relations in the Zhou Enlai School of Government, Nankai University, China. His research interests include China-U.S. Relations, Hierarchy in International Relations and International Security.

*Zhaoying Han is a Professor of International Relations in the Zhou Enlai School of Government, Nankai University, China. His primary research interests are China-US Relations, American Politics and Foreign Policy, Chinese Foreign Policy and International Relations Theory.

Mateus Bilhar
Mateus Bilhar
Mateus Bilhar is a Ph.D. student of International Relations in the Zhou Enlai School of Government, Nankai University, China. His research interests include International Relations of the Asia-Pacific, Sino-Latin America relations and Hierarchy in International Relations.


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