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LATIN AMERICA | 12-04-2023 12:24

China's Xi hosts Brazil's Lula in diplomatic push for Ukraine ceasefire

Brazil president arrives in China on Wednesday as President Xi Jinping seeks to build momentum for talks to halt fighting in Ukraine more than a year after Russia’s invasion. 

Brazil President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva arrives in China on Wednesday as President Xi Jinping seeks to build momentum for talks to halt fighting in Ukraine more than a year after Russia’s invasion. 

Lula’s trip to Shanghai and Beijing comes as Xi embarks on a round of diplomacy in the weeks after visiting Moscow, where he strengthened political ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin even while touting Beijing’s vague blueprint for peace that included a call for a ceasefire in Ukraine. The Chinese leader last week hosted French President Emmanuel Macron and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen to discuss the effort.

Xi has sought to burnish his credentials as a peacemaker after helping to broker a deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which agreed to normalize diplomatic relations in March. He has managed to cultivate that image while still threatening Taiwan, including by holding extensive military drills over the weekend after President Tsai Ing-wen met US House Speaker Kevin McCarthy. 

The Brazilian leader has also sought a larger role in global efforts to end the war in Ukraine, a dynamic that will likely make it a key theme of his bilateral meeting with Xi on Friday. Lula supports most of China’s plan to end the conflict, including the ceasefire, Foreign Affairs Minister Mauro Vieira told a small group of reporters in Brasilia ahead of the trip. 

“It is urgent that we end deaths, destruction and activities that are encouraging inflationary pressure in all countries,” Vieira said.

Still, Brazil’s president has reservations about China’s proposal to allow Russia to keep control of occupied Ukrainian territories, even as he remains skeptical of Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

“Putin can’t keep Ukrainian territory,” Lula told journalists in Brasília on April 6. “Perhaps we’re not discussing Crimea, but what he has recently invaded needs to be reconsidered. But Zelenskyy can’t have everything he wishes either.”

China’s initiative has been dismissed outright by the United States and some allies, who are wary of any process that would allow Russia to maintain its gains on the battlefield. Yet for Xi, the push for a ceasefire in Ukraine is also aimed at countering US attempts to portray China as a threat to the international order. 

During Macron’s visit, the French leader charted a different approach to the US’s tougher stance on Beijing. And the visit of Lula similarly helps consolidate China’s efforts to serve as a representative of developing economies that can provide an alternative to the US.

“It’s not just any visit — it’s Lula,” said Karin Vazquez, a non-resident fellow with think tank Center for China and Globalization, who is based in Shanghai. “He’s very respected as a global leader, and from the Chinese perspective indicates the relevance of Brazil and other emerging countries in the making of Xi’s ‘New Era.’” 

Lula, who was forced to delay the trip last month due to a mild case of pneumonia, last year said Zelenskyy was “as responsible as Putin for the war.” More recently, he told a local TV channel that Brazil was “ready to make any effort to guarantee peace in the world.”

Lula will start his visit in Shanghai, where he’s expected to visit an innovation centre owned by Huawei Technologies Co, the technology company the US alleges poses a threat to its national security.   

The Brazilian leader then heads to Beijing, where he will also hold meetings with Premier Li Qiang and Zhao Leji, chairman of the National People’s Congress. The talks will focus heavily on the environment — including satellite monitoring of destruction in the Amazon rainforest — as well as agriculture and commodities. Brazil’s environmental and agriculture ministers, Marina Silva and Carlos Favaro, will join Lula on the trip.

It is Lula’s third major visit abroad since he took office at the start of the year, after visits to Argentina in January and the US in February. The trip to Washington occurred without the sort of business mission that traveled to China last month as part of Lula’s previously scheduled trip, and it ended without any substantial new bilateral accords.

Brazil and China, by contrast, already reached agreements last month, when Favaro and more than 100 Brazilian agribusiness executives traveled to Beijing in the hopes of boosting trade relations between the two nations. China agreed to reopen its market to Brazilian beef after trade was suspended for a month amid investigations into a case of mad cow disease, and four Brazilian meat plants won permissions to ship to China.

During that visit, Favaro told Bloomberg News that there is still space to increase meat trade because the Brazilian share of the Chinese market isn’t large. More announcements are expected this week after plans to finalise several new deals were postponed because of Lula’s absence last month. 

China’s two-way trade in goods with Brazil nearly doubled from 2017 to US$171.5 billion last year, Chinese customs data showed. China has been Brazil’s biggest trading partner for 14 straight years, while the South American country is China’s top supplier of soybeans, chicken and sugar, according to figures provided by the Ministry of Commerce. 

The trade relationship has drawn scrutiny from environmentalists who fear that expansion of soybean and livestock production has helped drive deforestation in ecosystems like the Amazon rainforest and Brazil’s Cerrado savanna region. Lula has pledged to protect the Amazon and will look to enlist China’s support for that effort, as he did with the US during his White House visit in February. 

by Simone Iglesias & Tatiana Freitas, Bloomberg

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