The Big Beef Between Bolsonaro, Macron, and China

Ariel Castro-Martinez | Latin America Fellow


Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s brash brand of politics is a liability within his own government—and an even greater handicap when dealing with foreign governments. Recent bullish rhetoric directed at China, broadly, and French President Emmanuel Macron, specifically, both reflects his general diplomatic style and threatens to jeopardise Brazil’s trade relationships. Brazil, however, cannot afford to antagonise potential economic partners. Years of economic stagnation capped by a brutal COVID-19 outbreak has brought the country to its knees, raising the stakes for two lucrative new trade agreements Bolsonaro hopes to sign with China and Europe. The country’s long-term prosperity––now more than ever––depends heavily on its President’s ability to tame his red-blooded political instincts.

Beyond merely rhetoric, Bolsonaro's ‘beef’ with Macron and China is real and complex. Brazil is at the centre of a three-way, international heavyweight prize fight over the global politics of beef, and its success pivots on Bolsonaro's pugilism. On one end, South American trade bloc Mercosur and the European Union are on the verge of signing a historically meaty free trade deal. This puts Brazil's title as the world's largest beef exporter at odds with smaller European beef producers and Macron's green global agenda. On the other, Bolsonaro's nationalistic attacks on China––Brazil’s largest trade partner and the world’s largest beef importer––imperil Brazilian beef’s greatest potential growth market. Brazil’s future, quite literally, rests on Bolsonaro’s ability to manage beef. However, competing domestic and international interests threaten to outflank the president, critically testing his agility in the arena of trade diplomacy.

In The Red Corner

Bolsonaro’s very public antagonism towards Chinese interests in Brazil stems from sincere nationalistic and ideological differences but belies understated economic and political realities. Vocal excoriations of Chinese acquisitions of Brazilian assets countervail the President’s hopes to increase exports to China, despite the fact it already sells the Asian giant almost half of its beef and three quarters of its soy. Political alignment between the President and the Brazilian legislature’s powerful agribusiness caucus is drawing Bolsonaro into a rapprochement with China, including hopes for a free trade agreement.

Complementarily, a trade war with the United States, beef’s role as a status commodity amongst China’s rising middle class, and China’s own anaemic beef industry are driving Chinese reliance on Brazilian meat. However, Anti-China sentiment this year from Bolsonaro’s son has provoked retaliation from Beijing. If Brazilian-Chinese relations shift from pragmatic to adversarial, President Bolsonaro’s strategy to have his beef and eat it too may not be tenable.

In The Green Corner

Simultaneously, Brazilian beef has become the sticking point for what would be among the world’s largest free trade agreements. Protests from European beef producers and recent election victories for Greens candidates in France are pushing French President Macron to deny Brazilian beef its next biggest market in Europe. The Brazilian government’s encouragement of Amazon deforestation for increased cattle ranching and soy monoculture violates the terms of the Paris Climate Accord. Macron, looking to shore up his green credibility, called for sanctions against Brazil in 2019, prompting Bolsonaro to hit back with charges of neocolonialism.

Macron’s interests are similarly conflicted. The French President’s pro-free trade stance is challenged by the political threat of environmentalists on one end and protectionist farmers on the other. Whereas Brazilian beef’s entry into the European market would be an undeniable knockout for Bolsonaro, Macron’s political bind is forcing France into a defensively engaged trade posture. In the meantime, smack talk between the two sparring leaders frustrates the chance for compromise on a mutually desired and potentially transformative trade agreement.

The Middling Power Of Brazilian Beef

Whatever domestic political advantages Bolsonaro’s populist nationalism confers, his bravado does not translate well internationally. While Brazil’s political economy may reward aggressive agricultural development, Bolsonaro cannot bulldoze open foreign markets like he does rainforests. Nor can he offer rich global powers China or France anything like the economic reward he promises his own countrymen for enduring the frustrations that come with his leadership. Bolsonaro simply needs to sell beef more than China and France need to buy it.

Besides, the power politics of beef pales against the power politics exercised by richer nations with differently motivated political economies. Where Brazil exerts global influence through commodity production, Europe does so through norm-setting––like climate accords. China, instead, leverages trade imbalances to cow deference into nations like Brazil. Concomitantly, Brazil needs beef to grow its middle class, France uses beef to protect its middle class, and China uses beef to reward its middle class. The role that beef plays across each nation’s political economy informs the political power that can be leveraged by each leader’s decision to import or export more of it. These asymmetries explain the mismatched confidence in Bolsonaro’s position domestically versus his actual negotiating strength internationally.

Still, Bolsonaro’s strategic approach is correct, if undercooked. Brazil must insert itself between competing powers in a rapidly multipolarising world––but as a valuable partner, not another rival. Beef makes a much better carrot than stick in international diplomacy; Bolsonaro’s bluster is premature for a still-rising middle power. Brazil’s economic weight and institutional influence require bulking up before it can more assertively command a central presence and settle disputes abroad. For now, the battle might be won through graceful and balanced footwork, not wild, swinging blows.


Ariel Castro-Martinez is the Latin America Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

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