Brazilian farm groups want the country’s officials to stop biting the hand that feeds them. In a sign of the dangers implicit in heavy reliance on a given market, ag leaders there have asked some politicos to lay off public attacks on China at a time when Brazil goes hat in hand to the Asian giant asking for ventilators-- oh yeah, and soybean sales.
Beans are, after all, Brazil's number-one export to China and China is Brazil’s number-one customer overall, spending some $20.5 billion on Brazilian stuff last year. In 2019, nearly 58% of China’s total soybean imports came from Brazil. That proportion is likely to change in 2020 given the Sino-U.S. trade deal, but Brazilians are afraid it just could swing farther than necessary when Brazilian officials gratuitously irk the Chinese.
Recently Brazilian president Bolsonaro’s son, a congressman himself, sent a tweet about the coronavirus which so far has taken at least 16,000 likes. Eduardo Bolsonaro wrote, “The blame is China’s and freedom would be the solution.” Chinese ambassador to Brazil Yang Wanming demanded an apology.
By April 4, as Brazilian officials went shopping for respirators, gowns, gloves, test kits and N-95 hospital masks, Education Minister Abraham Weintraub issued a tweet saying China was out for “world domination.” It included a cartoon with a character swapping the “R” sound for “L,” standing before the Great Wall, which many, including Ambassador Yang, considered racist.
Reframing the debate
While some Brazilians consider pointing out race and color differences to be natural and inoffensive in a country with so many populational blends of Native, European and African bloods, the Chinese decidedly don’t like it. And they especially don’t like it right now when they’re shipping out hospital equipment strategically in order to be seen not as the source of COVID-19, but as a world savior from it.
Meanwhile, such “racist” characterizations fly in the face of that goal. A Euromonitor specialist indicated to the BBC that the Chinese are not above trade retaliation for such slights. He indicated that, in 2014, when the Japanese insisted on their country’s sovereignty over the disputed Senkaku Islands, China suspended its exports of rare earth elements (crucial to the electronics industry) to Japan. Maybe that’s why U.S. President Donald Trump has stopped calling COVID-19 the “Chinese virus.”
What about soybeans?
With the new Sino-U.S. trade deal in place, Brazil already knows China is likely to up its purchases of U.S. farm products, including soybeans. But, while the Chinese cannot realistically drop all their soy imports from Brazil and still hold onto their much-needed food sufficiency policy, they might just have reason to exaggerate their move to U.S. beans in 2020-21, and let the Brazilians sweat a bit for biting the hand that feeds them.
“We’ve already got so many problems, we don’t need to create new ones. Brazil gains nothing with this, it only loses,” said Pedro Camargo Neto, vice president of the Brazil Rural Society, a major farm group, to the Estado de Sao Paulo newspaper.