Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will use a trip to South America next week to forge an alliance against rising Chinese influence in the region with incoming Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, a hardline conservative who has made headlines by accusing Beijing of trying to “buy” Brazil.
A senior State Department official said Friday that Mr. Pompeo is “likely to discuss China and China’s predatory trade and lending practices” when he meets with Mr. Bolsonaro on the sidelines of the incoming president’s Jan. 1 inauguration, which the secretary of state will attend.
The official, who spoke on background, noted how Mr. Bolsonaro has publicly called out China for investment tactics that “run counter to Brazil’s sovereignty” — a message that resonates with Trump administration warnings of growing Chinese, as well as Russian, economic and military posturing across Latin America.
While U.S. officials have privately expressed concern over reports that China is pushing to secure major Brazilian, Argentine and other defense contracts, media attention over the past year has focused on investment by Chinese state-owned companies in electricity-transmission infrastructure.
According to Reuters, China has plowed $124 billion into Brazil since 2003, with investments tied during more recent years to Beijing’s desire to expand its “One Belt, One Road” foreign policy push deep into the Western Hemisphere.
Mr. Bolsonaro drew international attention while campaigning for the Brazilian presidency with heated rhetoric questioning China’s motives.
“The Chinese are not buying in Brazil … they are buying Brazil,” he said at one point, suggesting his administration plans to block the sale of Brazilian power-generation assets to Chinese government-controlled companies.
China denies its investment push in Latin America is predatory, despite allegations from Washington that Beijing seeks to saddle countries with loans for infrastructure projects in exchange for eventual Chinese access to those countries’ resources.
It remains to be seen which China-specific issues Mr. Pompeo will raise with Mr. Bolsonaro. Their meeting comes at a moment of tension between Washington and Beijing on trade, with both sides leveling tariffs against each other over the past year.
The State Department official who spoke on background Friday said only that “decisions about investment are sovereign decisions of Brazil” and that the United States seeks to be able to “compete on a level playing field” with Chinese companies.
On a separate front, the official praised Mr. Bolsonaro’s stances that align with those of President Trump on a range of issues beyond China.
“President-elect Bolsonaro has expressed interest in closer ties with the U.S and our regional allies and we, of course, welcome this,” the official said. “We look forward to forging closer ties with Brazil across the gamut.”
The incoming Brazilian leader has criticized the Paris climate agreement, although he has said his administration intends to keep Brazil in the accord, which Mr. Trump said last year he would pull the U.S. out of.
Mr. Bolsonaro also has drawn praise from the Trump administration by saying he’s considering shifting Brazil’s Embassy in Israel to the divided city of Jerusalem. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly also plans to attend Mr. Bolsonaro’s inauguration next week and is likely to push for such a development.
A State Department fact sheet Friday made no mention of the issue but noted Brazil is South America’s “most populous democracy and the world’s eighth-largest economy,” with roughly $100 billion in annual bilateral trade with the United States.
“We will seek to increase trade and investment between our countries, including increasing opportunities for U.S. businesses in technology, defense, and agriculture,” the fact sheet said.
On his way back from Brazil, Mr. Pompeo will make a state visit to Cartagena, Colombia, where he is scheduled to meet with Colombian President Ivan Duque. The fact sheet said the meeting will focus on building on “successes under the U.S.-Colombia Trade Promotion Agreement, which has doubled U.S. agricultural exports, to $2.53 billion in 2017 from nearly $1.3 billion in 2011.”
The official who spoke on background said Mr. Pompeo also will meet in Brazil with Peruvian President Martin Vizcarra, and that the secretary of state will raise the crisis in Venezuela throughout his trip by thanking the Peruvians, Brazilians and Colombians for absorbing Venezuelan refugees.
The official noted that roughly a million Venezuelans have fled into Colombia amid Venezuela’s economic and political meltdown in recent years.