Orfalea Center Media: Rapid Response Broadcasts Webinar Series

On Wednesday, April 19th, the Orfalea Center for Global and International Studies, directed by Prof. Paul Amar, hosted a live webinar as part of the Orfalea Center Media: Rapid Response Broadcasts series. The webinar was entitled “Launching a New Era of China-Brazil Relations? South-South Futures and the Tropical Silk Road.” The panelists discussed Brazilian President Lula’s recent visit to Beijing where he signed several new agreements with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Lula had also accompanied former Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff’s to Shanghai on the occasion of her appointment as director of the New Development Bank (formerly known as the BRICS Bank). The webinar invited speakers and guests to discuss the question, “Is this the launch of a new era of South-South relations?” This webinar and series is supported by funding from the Ford Foundation, and our collaboration and shared thematic vision with the Security in Context network, in addition to the the Paul Orfalea Endowment itself.  

Leading our discussion were: Dr. Paul Amar, Director of the Orfalea Center for Global and International Studies, and Professor of Global Studies at UC Santa Barbara; Dr. Laura Waisbich from the Oxford School of Global and Area Studies at the University of Oxford; Cai Yiping, from Beijing, is a member of the Executive Committee of Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era (DAWN). She Co-leads DAWN’s Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) thematic analysis team. She is currently doing her Ph.D. at Department of Global and International Studies, University of California, Irvine; Dr.Fernando Brancoli is Associate Professor of International Security at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and an Associated Researcher at the Orfalea Center for Global & International Studies at the University of California Santa Barbara.

In the open remarks of the webinar, Director Paul Amar started the conversation by underlining that this webinar occurs at a moment in which the Russian invasion of the Ukraine and the genocidal attacks by prospectors on Indigenous communities in the Amazon create a series of contradictions and tensions where the Brazilian state and Chinese state have unique opportunities to generate major solutions beyond the limits of geopolitics-as-usual, but might struggle to find common ground.

Dr. Paul Amar, Director of the Orfalea Center for Global and International Studies

Amar then turned to more recent occurrences. On April 12th, 2023, President Lula of Brazil, along with former President Dilma Rousseff arrived in Shanghai where she assumed her position as the head of the New Development Bank (formerly known as the BRICS Bank). BRICS is the acronym for a set of partnerships between the emerging powers of Brazil,  Russia, India, China and South Africa. This alliance became inactive in the years of Jair Bolsonaro who was far less interested in South-South partnerships and often stooped to explicitly anti-Asian racism.

Amar continued setting the context. Upon arriving in Beijing, with the sounds of “Novo Tempo” (a nostalgic Brazilian anthem by Ivan Lins that evokes the era of anti-dictatorship struggles in the late 1970s and early 1980s) playing on the sound system, President Lula descended to the tarmac from his plane and announced that “Brazil is back.” Back to engaging in world politics, after the isolationism and paranoid nationalism of the Bolsonaro’s era. Lula promised Brazil would step up to shape a new kind of world order and once again invest in realizing high level South-South partnerships. With the signing of more than 20-bilateral trade agreements, China’s role as the number one trading partner in Brazil was confirmed. This is a relaunching of economic relations that took a hit in the Bolsonaro years, quite intentionally on the part of Bolsonaro, it should be said.

Some would say this was bound to happen, “In April 2020, Brazil’s vice-president Hamilton Mourao (an army general) proclaimed that Brazil and China will be united in an ‘inevitable marriage’. Brazil seduces with its large-scale supplies of food and fuel. And China is a superpower longing for both.”1

However, celebration of these visits is not shared across all progressive spectrums. Amar identified two areas of concern that have generated debate on the political left and right. One concern is that this new wave of financed partnerships between Brazil and China could unleash not primarily an emancipatory development dynamic, but instead a wave of extractivist and environmentally destructive megaprojects. The second reason, Amar stated is that Lula has underlined that Brazil and China should be the center of a more neutralist group of countries in the world that might not necessarily support US foreign policy, for example, around the conflict in Russia and Ukraine, and might not agree to the sanctions regime that the US has championed.” Although diminishing imperialist posturing and protesting the escalation of military spending, arms industries, and base building by the US and NATO is important. Nevertheless, which dangerous repercussions or further military aggressions could a critique of the sanctions regime against Putin’s Russia invite?

While there remains much uncertainty and worry at what the future holds for these new relations, this visit by Brazil to China has also unleashed a great deal of excitement. As Amar states, the visit has generated “A lot of discussion around the new relevance of South-South relations and the revival of the BRICS framework as a possible either non-aligned or an alternative pole of geopolitical order. It has also got us talking about Brazil’s global profile – its relationship not just with China, but also with Africa, with global environmental movements, and with its own indigenous people who are going to be affected by these trade agreements.” All this is on the table and sets the agenda for the webinar.

Each panelist spoke to a particular issue or dimension of new relationships with China, raising important questions yet to be fully answered, and thought-provoking insights. It was a very well attended event that no doubt has expanded and spread these conversations to new audiences.

A New Moment

Dr. Laura Waisbich presented a set of interesting questions, “What could a bank with a nature of being ‘Southern’ led, or BRICS led, bring to the landscape of international financial institutions?” and to what extent would it operate differently than so-called traditional international financial institutions, in particular the World Bank. For Dr. Waisbich, yes, this Southern led New Development Bank is something different. It is a new institution that does hold aspirations of doing things differently.

Laura walked the audience through the possibilities and novelty that Bank possessed in the initial years about 10 years ago. “There is an element of frustration stemming from the fact that the New Development Bank did little in terms of what it could have done in setting up a robust framework of what new development finance is,” she says. The Bank spoke of a desire for sustainable infrastructure development, for example, but failed to answer very basic questions about what that is or what the impact of such development would look like. In that time, Chinese banks simply overtook initiatives like the New Development Bank. Laura said that, For China, “the Bank was just yet another on a list of funds and initiatives.” She said that part of the reason why other bilateral and Chinese led banks became bigger and more ambitious was that the founding member BRICS countries themselves were not putting in enough energy, political and financial capital. “It was an instrument without a purpose,” she said, though not lacking in aspirations.

Laura suggested that the entrance of a high-profile figure like Dilma Rousseff will change the possibilities of the Bank, and in a way, also change the Brazilian value or added value to the Bank. She emphasized that “This is a new moment right now for the Bank. . . [What do its] members want it to be, both in terms of the nature of the projects, but also for governments to . . . make it more robust.”

Laura’s closing remarks spoke to the possibilities of the New Development Bank (NDB). This will all play out differently for Brazil than it will for China. She remarks that Brazil is not a current leader of international institutions nor a permanent member of the UN Security Council, so to invest political and diplomatic capital in making the NDB into something more powerful might be Brazil’s route to global influence. Since China is not lacking for financial initiatives and facilities, Laura stated, “I’m not sure the Chinese government is actually looking at the New Development Bank as its most strategic asset… but other countries might benefit from this new bank.”

Rather than competing with existing institutions or replacing them, Laura said that the New Development Bank may develop its own niche contribution to development but may also develop its own set of problems. What Laura is interested in observing going forward is how civil society groups will mobilize. How will affected communities engage with financial institutions and face the challenge of making an institution in faraway Shanghai accountable to them, on the ground elsewhere in the Global South. Put simply, she asked, “If you are from an affected community in Brazil or Latin America, there are many challenges in negotiating with a bank that is based in Shanghai.” Similarly, she emphasized that the linkages between Latin American and Chinese civil society movements are very important to strengthen.

Chinese Civil Society

The webinar’s attention then turned to examine internal changes with Chinese civil society that do not necessarily directly impact Brazil or Latin America per se. Nevertheless, we need to remain aware of these civil relations as we analyze changing shifting patterns of South-South relations, including those between Brazil and China. Our webinar participant, Yiping Cai, stated that much of the attention has been given to trade, financial financing for development or geopolitics but that we need to pay attention to the continued vitality of civil society. Yiping told the audience of two trends she identified in the context of this discussion. One is the internationalization of Chinese NGO, and the second is China’s revamping or revival of the South-South relationships, and not just trade agreements but also civil, gender, and cultural relations.

As Yiping pointed out, “Something new has sprung up in the last decade is that many Chinese civil society organizations have started to “go global” – meaning that they are implementing development or humanitarian projects in Global South countries. We now see the state and government actually encouraging certain Chinese civil society groups to adopt a more multilateral [internationally engaged] platform, including the United Nations and other multilateral spaces.” As Yiping noted, our colleague and panelist, Laura, had actually been invited to attend a forum organized by the Chinese government. This forum hosted civil society meetings to support south-south solidarity between civil groups in order to back the global development initiative launched by the Chinese president two years ago.

In her analysis of the growing visibility of Chinese civil society, Yiping used the lenses of gender and sexuality to reveal growing connections between civil society. Gender questions shed a spotlight on what Yiping described as a “paradox on the part of the Chinese government: On the one hand, feminist activist organizing faces crackdowns or is otherwise discouraged on a national level. However, on a global level, the Chinese state actually projects itself as a progressive force for the advancement of gender equality and women’s development by providing funding and support for initiatives involved with UN Sustainable Development Goals which focuses on gender equality and women’s empowerment.” Yiping also pointed out that the issue of “gender equality and women’s empowerment” is included in China’s recent official policy paper defining its international cooperation priorities.

To close, Yiping highlighted a growing discourse within China that now is the time to revive and reimagine Chinese South-South relations. This conversation among Chinese social media users was visible online just before President Lula’s visit. Yiping states “the discourse coming from Chinese scholars is that in the last 30 or 40 years since Chinese reform and ‘opening up’, South-South relations have lost their political dimensions and have been strictly focused on trade, business, and initiatives such as the BRI (Belt Road Initiative).” She went on to say that these same voices are calling for a revival of the political and cultural dimensions to these Southern relationships, “especially in light of contemporary global geo-politics with China cast as an ideological ‘enemy.’”

A Needed Change in Engagement

Dr. Fernando Francoli spoke to current relations between China and Brazil, as it relates to infrastructure projects, but also how actors are already attempting to understand and process the entrance of China in Brazil and Latin America, and raising points about how we will need to reconceptualize our thinking with regards to the role of Global South countries.

Fernando stated that, of course, bi-lateral discussions were at the center of President Lula’s visit to China, pointing out that there was discussion on China’s surprise mediation of relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran just a few weeks prior. Fernando said this was used as an example by many Brazilian diplomats for why they should deepen their relationship with China. In this reasoning, China will be at the forefront of many diplomatic crises around the world. However, when Lula returned from Beijing with a number of signed new treaties and investment promises, there was frustration, said Fernando. “Some analysts were expecting a formal decision on the part of Brazil to officially join the New Silk Road,” he said.

The question, then, is to what extent does “officially signing up” really matter? “Although there has been no formal decision by Brazil at the federal level to  join the New Silk Road, what we have been witnessing in recent years is that China is already engaging with a number of different actors and sub-national actors in Latin America through this new model of investment in infrastructure” said Fernando. These actors have taken it upon themselves to “join.” Governors and other actors are saying they are part of the New Silk Road. “So I would say that our gaze as analysts and activists must now change – we must turn away from this need we have for some “official” federal document that says a state is now a partner in some deal; what we are already witnessing are a number of deals being cut between governors and other actors,” he continued.

When thinking about discussions that arise from China’s entrance into Latin America, Fernando stressed that we do not need to wait for Lula and Xi Jinping to create or define these discussions; they are already happening at various levels. He pointed out that a number of different minority groups, including rural and Brazil’s indigenous communities are creating new sets of ideas and concepts to try to grapple with this new China factor. “Minorities in Brazil are understanding, in new ways, how the environment should play a larger role in their lives or not.” said Fernando. He said that this revolution regarding discussions from minorities, social groups and movements is not going to end. He continued by pointing out that this is not only a matter regarding investment, security and new frameworks regarding the role of global South countries. “I do believe we will have to not only address these issues through listening to various voices, but even theory, the theory will have to change. Here in Brazil, we are very connected to traditional theory regarding investments, and I would say we will have to engage with different and broader methodologies going forward.”


The webinar and discussion were also set in the context of this comprehensive set of studies. Specifically, a newly released book, entitled “The Tropical Silk Road: The Future of China in South America,” which looks at relationships between China and particularly the countries of Brazil and Ecuador in South America, but which actually includes more than a dozen indigenous authors, activists, journalists, Black community organizers, and a whole spectrum of environmentalist perspectives. The Orfalea Center has produced a small piece on this book, which you can read here. Though the webinar was more of a geopolitical oriented analysis, the Orfalea Center is working towards future programming involving the dozens more other participants in this study. We encourage you all to closely follow the work of our Center and our partners as we prepare to begin these programming initiatives.

This webinar and series is supported by funding from the Ford Foundation, and our collaboration and shared thematic vision with the Security in Context network, in addition to the the Paul Orfalea Endowment itself.  


Amar, Paul, Lisa Rofel, Fernando Brancoli, Marìa Amelia Viteri, and Consuelo Fernandez. 2022. The Tropical Silk Road: The Future of China in South America. Stanford University Press.

Article or Event Link
Jun 6, 2023
Public Policy


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