Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva kicked off a state visit to China in the country's financial hub of Shanghai as he seeks to position himself as a peace broker in the ongoing war in Ukraine while attempting to elevate Brazil's global status and boost economic ties with Beijing.
The left-wing Brazilian president arrived late on April 11 and will also meet Chinese leader Xi Jinping in Beijing on April 14 before departing China a day later.
In Shanghai, Lula attended the official swearing-in of close adviser and former Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff as head of the Chinese-backed New Development Bank. The Brazilian government said that they are expected to sign at least 20 bilateral agreements with the Chinese side during the trip, with Brazilian and Chinese officials saying the flurry of deals reflects the improved relations between the two countries, which experienced a turbulent period under Lula's far-right predecessor, Jair Bolsonaro.
But a key piece of Lula's outreach is courting political backing for his proposal that Brazil and other developing countries, including China, form a "peace club" to broker a deal to end the war in Ukraine, a conflict that has been rumbling on since 2014 before intensifying in February 2022 after Russia's full-scale invasion.
Beijing has also sought to play a role in ending the conflict. Both Lula and Brazilian Foreign Minister Mauro Vieira have said that peace talks will be a centerpiece of discussions with Xi, with Vieira saying earlier this week that "by the time Lula returns home, a group of mediator countries will have been created."
Analysts, however, remain skeptical about the chances of Lula's peace proposal, which is unlikely to gain support from Kyiv and its backers given China's close ties with Russia and past comments from the Brazilian leader that Ukraine should cede Crimea -- which was forcibly annexed by Moscow in 2014 -- as a means to reach a deal.
"Lula sees a critical juncture here and an opportunity to assert himself and revive Brazilian foreign policy in the process," Carlos Solar, a senior fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, a London-based defense and security think tank, told RFE/RL. "But for the 'peace club' idea to work, you need to be seen as a peace broker by both sides and Kyiv doesn't seem to view Brazil as impartial."
Lula's China trip -- which was originally scheduled for March but delayed after the 77-year-old caught pneumonia -- comes on the heels of an extensive round of diplomacy from both leaders.
Xi made a high-profile visit to Moscow in late March where he strengthened political ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin and touted Beijing's own blueprint for peace that it unveiled in February. The Chinese plan has been criticized in much of the West as vague and slanted in Russia's favor.
The Chinese leader has also hosted a slew of visiting dignitaries recently, including an April 5 visit from French President Emmanuel Macron and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, where the war in Ukraine and Beijing's support for Moscow featured prominently in discussions.
Brazil, meanwhile, has sought to engage both Russia and Ukraine. "I am convinced that both Ukraine and Russia are waiting for someone else to say, 'Let's sit down and talk,'" Lula told journalists in Brasilia, the country's capital, prior to his China trip.
Lula's foreign policy adviser Celso Amorim flew to Moscow in March to push for peace talks, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will visit Brasilia on April 17. A week before his departure to China, Lula also dispatched a special envoy to Kyiv to present his peace idea. The Brazilian leader has suggested that one solution to the conflict could be the return of newly invaded territory, though not Crimea -- an option that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has rejected outright.
Lula has not been overtly pro-Russian. He has condemned Moscow and recently Brazil voted in support of United Nations resolutions rejecting Russia's invasion and demanding that its troops leave Ukrainian territory. However, the Brazilian president has also seemed to place some of the blame for the war on NATO and Ukraine, refused to participate in economic sanctions against Russia, and criticized countries for sending arms to Ukraine instead of seeking peace.
The Royal United Services Institute's Solar says that Lula has made foreign policy a priority early in his tenure, advocating for regional integration in South America and international cooperation on issues like combating climate change while repositioning Brazil as a nonaligned global power and leader within the Global South.
China and Brazil are members of the BRICS group of developing countries and have pushed for changes in what they say is a U.S.-dominated system of managing global political affairs.
Russia, along with India and South Africa, are also BRICS members. The grouping is set to convene for its annual summit in August and Lula -- who previously served as president of Brazil from 2003 to 2010 -- played a key role in championing the bloc in its early days.
"Eventually there will be some sort of peace in Ukraine and while it's unlikely to be from a Chinese or Brazilian proposal, Lula is looking to position Brazil on that side and score some foreign policy points down the line," Solar said.
A Foreign Policy Reset
Beyond burnishing his credentials as a peace broker, Lula is looking to deepen trade and investment between Brazil and China following a period of strained ties and an economic crisis at home.
China overtook the United States as Brazil's top trading partner in 2009 and is a leading market for Brazilian exports. In addition to the slew of deals expected to be signed -- ranging from trade to satellite construction -- Lula is also set to visit a research center of Huawei, a Chinese technology giant.
A key theme of the visit voiced by Chinese analysts and officials is a return to normalcy in bilateral ties. Chinese state media have commonly referred to Lula as an "old friend" of China's and said that Brazil is a leading voice within the Global South that Beijing should try to amplify.
"Especially in the context of escalating competition between major powers, Brazil should become a partner that China actively strives to win over in its diplomacy," Zhou Zhiwei, director of the Center for Brazilian Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, co-wrote in a February report along with a team of other analysts.
Earlier this year, China and Brazil also moved to reduce the dominance of the U.S. dollar by signing an agreement on setting up yuan clearing-house arrangements that would facilitate bilateral trade and investment.
However, Brazil may be looking to avoid becoming overly reliant on China.
While Lula's current trip is set to deepen ties, he is also focused on cementing Brazil as a regional power in Latin America, having made trips in January to Argentina and Uruguay.
Lula also went to Washington in February where he met with U.S. President Joe Biden, a move that points to the balancing act present in Brazil's international affairs.
"[Lula] needs this frenzy of deals in China and talks with Xi in part to show his public that he's still an influential guy around the world," Solar said. "But when you look more closely, you can see that he is putting his eggs in different baskets."
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