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Brazil at the Crossroads: Crisis with Beijing or Alignment with Washington?

Image credit: Palácio do Planalto

In the midst of a major economic and political crisis, Brazil cannot afford to alienate one of its main economic partners. In the post-COVID world order, Brazil needs to redefine its foreign policy based on national interests other than self-defined ideologies, if it wants to bring about economic growth and regain its legitimacy and influence in the international arena.

Guest Author: Raphael Tsavkko Garcia

Before taking over as Brazil’s Chancellorship, Ernesto Araújo was just an obscure lower-ranking diplomat at Brazil’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

However, he was already known by the Brazilian far-right for maintaining a blog in which he defended American President Donald Trump and paraded conspiracy theories — which he continues to do, but with an infinitely greater reach and capacity for causing damages to the nation’s foreign policy.

To become Chancellor, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had to accelerate Araujo’s promotion from Minister of Second Class to Minister of First Class even though he never even headed a diplomatic mission abroad prior to becoming Foreign Minister. And his performance is proof of his political and diplomatic inability that has resulted in nothing but Brazil losing its long-fought space on the international scene after years of building a proactive foreign policy that sought to influence issues of great global relevance.

In the same vein, Brazil’s far-right President Jair Bolsonaro has also pursued the same agenda of undoing the policies of previous governments while taking an unprecedented tilt towards a virtually automatic alignment with Washington almost on all major issues. In addition, he has strongly backed the forging of an international alliance among the global far-right states including the U.S., Hungary, Poland, and Israel, whose economic benefits to the country remain doubtful up until today.

In his very first months as President, Bolsonaro decided to alter Brazil’s traditional stance of seeking a negotiated solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to unconditional support for Israel. As part of his visit to Israel, he even announced the moving of the Brazilian embassy to Jerusalem, which was not really recognized internationally anyways.

With so-called Christian values at the heart of his foreign policy logic, Brazil has suffered numerous setbacks with considerable political and economic ramifications. For instance, Brazil, in an unprecedented move, sided with countries known for their dubious human rights records in the UN Human Rights Council votes on diversity, gender, and reproductive rights issues.

In February of last year, Brazil embarked on a frustrated attempt to send humanitarian aid to Venezuela in an effort to destabilize Nicolás Maduro’s regime while pleasing Washington, which ultimately led to broader tensions in the region.

A month after, during a visit to Washington, Bolsonaro announced that it would give up its status as a developing country in the World Trade Organization in exchange for Brazil’s entry into the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Earlier this year, the U.S. also voiced its official support for Brazil’s accession to the organization but it is still unknown when the process will begin or how long it will take.

Despite support from the U.S, Brazil still hit the rock when the head of the OECD anti-corruption working group, Drago Kos, said that Brazil will have to explain the reasons behind the resignation of then Justice Minister Sergio Moro—a precondition for the country’s acceptance within the institution. It is noteworthy to mention that President Bolsonaro is accused of illegal interference with the work of the Federal Police in relation to Moro’s resignation.

Clearly, it is quite difficult to understand how Brazil’s special relationship with the U.S has really served its national interests. From threatening to increase steel tariffs to imposing restrictions on flights from Brazil, the U.S has proved to turn its back to Brazil at critical times. While Brazil’s far-right foreign policy and its unconditional alignment with the U.S. has brought no positive outcome for the country, it has surely led to unnecessary and costly clashes with China.

It was no breaking news that Bolsonaro had anti-China stances and used harsh rhetoric against the country before his presidency. However, he soon managed to adapt to a more diplomatic language on China ever since he became President. Yet, his son, Congressman Eduardo Bolsonaro, as well as a couple of his Ministers in the government have decided to follow a collision course with Beijing.

In March, Eduardo Bolsonaro blamed China on Twitter for the COVID-19 pandemic, to which the Chinese ambassador to Brazil, Yang Wanming, promptly responded by opening a serious diplomatic crisis between the two countries. Foreign Minister Araújo’s reaction was to issue a statement, clarifying that the comments of the President’s son did not reflect the Brazilian government’s position. Though the statement still ended with blaming the Chinese ambassador for his “disproportionate reaction”, which “hurt good diplomatic practice.”

Two weeks later, Minister of Education Abraham Weintraub wrote on Twitter that the pandemic would serve China’s desire to “dominate the world”. In his tweet, which was later deleted, Weintraub also ridiculed the Chinese accent, which outraged many who found his comment as an act of racism. The Federal Supreme Court also opened an investigation against the Minister, who thought it was a good idea to blackmail China by saying he would only apologize to the country if the Chinese agreed to sell respirators to Brazil. Ironically, it was ultimately the U.S that confiscated a load of 600 respirators that had departed China for Brazil and they were only supposed to transit via Miami.

The Brazilian stance, represented by the speeches of Ministers and politicians, puts Brazil’s trade relations with one of its largest trading partners in jeopardy. Recently, China announced that it would increase its purchase of U.S. agricultural products, claiming that the Brazilian supply chain is not secure due to the pandemic.

The agricultural sector, one of the pillars of Bolsonaro’s popular support, is already showing dissatisfaction with Brazil’s foreign policy in which a considerable part of the industry happens to be very dependent on China. Already weakened after the accusations made by Moro, Bolsonaro cannot afford to lose the support of this sector. In fact, the situation could further escalate when China decides to elevate its formal diplomatic criticism to more concrete actions and trade retaliation against Brazil.

In the midst of a major economic and political crisis, Brazil cannot afford to alienate one of its main economic partners. In the post-COVID world order, Brazil needs to redefine its foreign policy based on national interests other than self-defined ideologies, if it wants to bring about economic growth and regain its legitimacy and influence in the international arena.

Raphael Tsavkko Garcia is a Brazilian journalist published by Al Jazeera, Foreign Policy, World Politics Review, The Brazilian Report, PRI, DW, among other news outlets. He also holds a Ph.D. in Human Rights (University of Deusto), a MA in Communication (FCL), and a BA in International Relations (PUCSP). You can follow him on Twitter @Tsavkko.

Panel 4: Pathways to Manage Non-Proliferation in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:45 PM ET)

The Western powers have failed to effectively manage the increasing threat of proliferation in the Middle East. While the international community is concerned with Iran’s nuclear program, Saudi Arabia has moved forward with developing its own nuclear program, and independent studies show that Israel has longed possessed dozens of nuclear warheads. The former is a member of the treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), while the latter has refused to sign the international agreement. 

On Middle East policy, the Biden campaign had staunchly criticized the Trump administration’s unilateral withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), more commonly known as the Iran Nuclear Deal and it has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier since assuming office in January 2021. However, serious obstacles remain for responsible actors in expanding non-proliferation efforts toward a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. 

This panel will discuss how Western powers and multilateral institutions, such as the IAEA, can play a more effective role in managing non-proliferation efforts in the Middle East.  


Peggy Mason: Canada’s former Ambassador to the UN for Disarmament

Mark Fitzpatrick: Associate Fellow & Former Executive Director, International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS)

Ali Vaez: Iran Project Director, International Crisis Group

Negar Mortazavi: Journalist and Political Analyst, Host of Iran Podcast

David Albright: Founder and President of the Institute for Science and International Security


Closing (5:45 PM – 6:00 PM ET)

Panel 3: Trade and Business Diplomacy in the Middle East (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

What is the current economic landscape in the Middle East? While global foreign direct investment is expected to fall drastically in the post-COVID era, the World Bank reported a 5% contraction in the economic output of the Middle East and North African (MENA) countries in 2020 due to the pandemic. While oil prices are expected to rebound with normalization in demand, political instability, regional and geopolitical tensions, domestic corruption, and a volatile regulatory and legal environment all threaten economic recovery in the Middle East. What is the prospect for economic growth and development in the region post-pandemic, and how could MENA nations promote sustainable growth and regional trade moving forward?

At the same time, Middle Eastern diaspora communities have become financially successful and can help promote trade between North America and the region. In this respect, the diaspora can become vital intermediaries for advancing U.S. and Canada’s business interests abroad. Promoting business diplomacy can both benefit the MENA region and be an effective and positive way to advance engagement and achieve foreign policy goals of the North Atlantic.

This panel will investigate the trade and investment opportunities in the Middle East, discuss how facilitating economic engagement with the region can benefit Canadian and American national interests, and explore relevant policy prescriptions.


Hon. Sergio Marchi: Canada’s Former Minister of International Trade

Scott Jolliffe: Chairperson, Canada Arab Business Council

Esfandyar Batmanghelidj: Founder and Publisher of Bourse & Bazaar

Nizar Ghanem: Director of Research and Co-founder at Triangle

Nicki Siamaki: Researcher at Control Risks

Panel 2: Arms Race and Terrorism in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

The Middle East continues to grapple with violence and instability, particularly in Yemen, Syria and Iraq. Fueled by government incompetence and foreign interventions, terrorist insurgencies have imposed severe humanitarian and economic costs on the region. Meanwhile, regional actors have engaged in an unprecedented pursuit of arms accumulation. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have imported billions of both Western and Russian-made weapons and funded militant groups across the region, intending to contain their regional adversaries, particularly Iran. Tehran has also provided sophisticated weaponry to various militia groups across the region to strengthen its geopolitical position against Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Israel. 

On the other hand, with international terrorist networks and intense regional rivalry in the Middle East, it is impractical to discuss peace and security without addressing terrorism and the arms race in the region. This panel will primarily discuss the implications of the ongoing arms race in the region and the role of Western powers and multilateral organizations in facilitating trust-building security arrangements among regional stakeholders to limit the proliferation of arms across the Middle East.



Luciano Zaccara: Assistant Professor, Qatar University

Dania Thafer: Executive Director, Gulf International Forum

Kayhan Barzegar: Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the Science and Research Branch of Azad University

Barbara Slavin: Director of Iran Initiative, Atlantic Council

Sanam Shantyaei: Senior Journalist at France24 & host of Middle East Matters

Panel 1: Future of Diplomacy and Engagement in the Middle East (10:30 AM-11:45 AM ET)

The emerging regional order in West Asia will have wide-ranging implications for global security. The Biden administration has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier, an initiative staunchly opposed by Israel, while also taking a harder line on Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen. Meanwhile, key regional actors, including Qatar, Iraq, and Oman, have engaged in backchannel efforts to bring Iran and Saudi Arabia to the negotiating table. From a broader geopolitical perspective, with the need to secure its energy imports, China is also expected to increase its footprint in the region and influence the mentioned challenges. 

In this evolving landscape, Western powers will be compelled to redefine their strategic priorities and adjust their policies with the new realities in the region. In this panel, we will discuss how the West, including the United States and its allies, can utilize multilateral diplomacy with its adversaries to prevent military escalation in the region. Most importantly, the panel will discuss if a multilateral security dialogue in the Persian Gulf region, proposed by some regional actors, can help reduce tensions among regional foes and produce sustainable peace and development for the region. 


Abdullah Baabood: Academic Researcher and Former Director of the Centre for Gulf Studies, Qatar University

Trita Parsi: Executive Vice-President, Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft

Ebtesam Al-Ketbi: President, Emirates Policy Centre​

Jon Allen: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Israel

Elizabeth Hagedorn: Washington correspondent for Al-Monitor

Panel 4: Humanitarian Diplomacy: An Underused Foreign Policy Tool in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:30 PM ET)

Military interventions, political and economic instabilities, and civil unrest in the Middle East have led to a global refugee crisis with an increasing wave of refugees and asylum seekers to Europe and Canada. Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has, in myriad ways, exacerbated and contributed to the ongoing security threats and destabilization of the region.

While these challenges pose serious risks to Canadian security, Ottawa will also have the opportunity to limit such risks and prevent a spillover effect vis-à-vis effective humanitarian initiatives in the region. In this panel, we will primarily investigate Canada’s Middle East Strategy’s degree of success in providing humanitarian aid to the region. Secondly, the panel will discuss what programs and initiatives Canada can introduce to further build on the renewed strategy. and more specifically, how Canada can utilize its policy instruments to more effectively deal with the increasing influx of refugees from the Middle East. 



Erica Di Ruggiero: Director of Centre for Global Health, University of Toronto

Reyhana Patel: Head of Communications & Government Relations, Islamic Relief Canada

Amir Barmaki: Former Head of UN OCHA in Iran

Catherine Gribbin: Senior Legal Advisor for International and Humanitarian Law, Canadian Red Cross

Panel 3: A Review of Canada’s Middle East Engagement and Defense Strategy (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

In 2016, Canada launched an ambitious five-year “Middle East Engagement Strategy” (2016-2021), committing to investing CA$3.5 billion over five years to help establish the necessary conditions for security and stability, alleviate human suffering and enable stabilization programs in the region. In the latest development, during the meeting of the Global Coalition against ISIS, Minister of Foreign Affairs Marc Garneau announced more than $43.6 million in Peace and Stabilization Operations Program funding for 11 projects in Syria and Iraq.

With Canada’s Middle East Engagement Strategy expiring this year, it is time to examine and evaluate this massive investment in the Middle East region in the past five years. More importantly, the panel will discuss a principled and strategic roadmap for the future of Canada’s short-term and long-term engagement in the Middle East.


Ferry de Kerckhove: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Egypt

Dennis Horak: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia

Chris Kilford: Former Canadian Defence Attaché in Turkey, member of the national board of the Canadian International Council (CIC)

David Dewitt: University Professor Emeritus, York University

Panel 2: The Great Power Competition in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

While the United States continues to pull back from certain regional conflicts, reflected by the Biden administration’s decision to halt American backing for Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen and the expected withdrawal from Afghanistan, US troops continue to be stationed across the region. Meanwhile, Russia and China have significantly maintained and even expanded their regional activities. On one hand, the Kremlin has maintained its military presence in Syria, and on the other hand, China has signed an unprecedented 25-year strategic agreement with Iran.

As the global power structure continues to shift, it is essential to analyze the future of the US regional presence under the Biden administration, explore the emerging global rivalry with Russia and China, and at last, investigate the implications of such competition for peace and security in the Middle East.


Dmitri Trenin: Director of Carnegie Moscow Center

Joost R. Hiltermann: Director of MENA Programme, International Crisis Group

Roxane Farmanfarmaian: Affiliated Lecturer in International Relations of the Middle East and North Africa, University of Cambridge

Andrew A. Michta: Dean of the College of International and Security Studies at Marshall Center

Kelley Vlahos: Senior Advisor, Quincy Institute

Panel 1: A New Middle East Security Architecture in the Making (10:30 AM -11:45 AM ET)

The security architecture of the Middle East has undergone rapid transformations in an exceptionally short period. Notable developments include the United States gradual withdrawal from the region, rapprochement between Israel and some GCC states through the Abraham Accords and the rise of Chinese and Russian regional engagement.

With these new trends in the Middle East, it is timely to investigate the security implications of the Biden administration’s Middle East policy. In this respect, we will discuss the Biden team’s new approach vis-à-vis Iran, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. The panel will also discuss the role of other major powers, including China and Russia in shaping this new security environment in the region, and how the Biden administration will respond to these powers’ increasing regional presence.



Sanam Vakil: Deputy Director of MENA Programme at Chatham House

Denise Natali: Acting Director, Institute for National Strategic Studies & Director of the Center for Strategic Research, National Defense University

Hassan Ahmadian: Professor of the Middle East and North Africa Studies, University of Tehran

Abdulaziz Sagar: Chairman, Gulf Research Center

Andrew Parasiliti: President, Al-Monitor