One of them wants the world to know his country is battling its way back to its former glory after three years of zero-Covid lockdowns and a long and humiliating history of foreign exploitation.
The other wants to signal his country is bouncing back from four chaotic years under a far-right populist who took a sledgehammer to its place in the world.
The two revival-seeking politicians – China’s leader, Xi Jinping, and the Brazilian president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva – will meet in Beijing next week during a high-profile tour that is part of the latter’s efforts to repair his country’s overseas reputation after Jair Bolsonaro’s era of antagonism and isolation.
Lula’s 26-31 March visit – on which he will take scores of the most powerful figures in Brazilian politics, industry and agribusiness – comes hot on the heels of trips to the United States and Argentina, Brazil’s most important trade partners after China.
Political scientist Cláudio Couto said those trips were designed to emphasize how sensible, stable government had returned to South America’s biggest economy after four topsy-turvy years during which Bolsonaro insulted and alienated allies, from Paris to Beijing.
“The top message is that Brazil is back to normal,” Couto said, recalling the repeated anti-China attacks from Bolsonaro and his allies.
Margaret Myers, a specialist in China-Latin America relations from the Wilson Center thinktank, suspected Beijing would be delighted at the return of Lula, an affable pragmatist who made two state visits there during his first 2003 to 2011 presidency.
Back then, Myers remembers chummy photographs of Lula and China’s then leader Hu Jintao being splashed over Chinese magazine covers. “There was this sort of love affair with Lula that I’d never really seen – certainly not with any other Latin American presidents and few others,” she said.
“So this will be [viewed as] a bit of a homecoming … and an effort to demonstrate that this relationship is not only alive and well but thriving … He will be met with a lot of excitement.”
Thriving ties with Beijing are crucial to Brazil’s 77-year-old leader, who managed to bankroll transformational social programs during his first stint in power partly thanks to China’s insatiable appetite for commodities such as soy beans and iron ore.
The visit will also bolster Xi’s campaign to position himself as a global statesman and would-be peacemaker determined to stamp China’s mark on world affairs from eastern Europe to the Middle East and Latin America.
“They are useful to one another,” the international relations professor Matias Spektor said of Lula and Xi.
“In Lula’s case, it helps [send a message] to a domestic audience, to other South American countries and the United States that Brazil is back. And from Xi Jinping’s point of view it also shows that even in a region like Latin America that was traditionally one of US influence, China has leverage.”
The scale of Lula’s visit will be less thrilling to Washington given the dismal state of US-China ties and what analysts call the Brazilian’s underwhelming call on Joe Biden in the White House last month.
“It was a very frustrating visit,” said Spektor, a visiting scholar at Princeton University.
Despite hopes Biden and Lula would bond over the battles against climate change and political extremism, Spektor said the Brazilian delegation had been disappointed by the level of funds offered to help combat Amazon deforestation, which soared under Bolsonaro. The lack of US enthusiasm for Lula’s offer to help broker peace between Moscow and Kyiv also irked the Brazilians.
“The Brazilian side was so dissatisfied with what it got from the American side that Lula took the decision to meet Biden’s enemies in the Democratic party [Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez] before meeting Biden himself,” Spektor said of what he called Lula’s brief and tense visit.
Lula’s trip to Beijing and Shanghai – which China’s foreign ministry claims “will open up new prospects in China-Brazil relations in the new era” – is set to be a far more extravagant affair.
His delegation reportedly includes more than 200 business leaders, including the billionaire owners of the meat processing giant JBS, half a dozen ministers, three state governors and dozens of lawmakers, among them the senate president, Rodrigo Pacheco. Lula will be received by both Xi and his close ally Li Qiang, the former Communist party chief of Shanghai who was recently named China’s new premier.
“Lula is giving enormous political importance to this trip – much more than the trip to the US … Even if he isn’t trying to send a message [to the US], he ends up sending one,” said Spektor, who believed Brazil’s strategy was to play the world’s two largest economies off against each other.
“This is what Brazil wants: to go to China, to try and get more concessions from the US. And after that go to the US to try to get more concessions from China … They are hedging their bets.”
Lula has insisted he is not taking sides in the rancorous tussle between Washington and Beijing. “I’m not going to get into a cold war with anyone,” Lula said last month, claiming he wanted “splendid” relationships with both.
Myers played down the potential for US displeasure, noting that Lula had visited Biden before Xi. “Certainly Brazil is trying to play both sides – and legitimately so,” she added.
But Spektor said that by undertaking such a high-profile tour of China after such a lackluster excursion to the US, Lula risked signalling to Washington that he was aligning himself with Beijing.
“This wouldn’t be correct. This isn’t the intention of Lula’s government,” he said. “But there is the risk that this is how it will be interpreted in Washington.”