What do Brazilian Admirals want? Not a quiet expansion!

The Minister of Defence, the commanders of the Army and Navy, as well as other high-ranked politicians on a Brazilian Navy ceremony (photo by Felipe Barra, 2013)

The Minister of Defence, the commanders of the Army and Navy, and various other high-ranked politicians on a Brazilian Navy ceremony (photo by Felipe Barra, 2013)

The Swiss blog Offiziere.ch has recently published a piece by Paul Pryce, analysing the Brazilian Navy’s current endeavours whilst trying to figure out what bearing it is sailing. Pryce evaluates the ‘quiet expansion’ of the Brazilian Navy, and whilst he delivers a brief but sound level of analysis, he fails to deliver an accurate reading of some of the key underlying issues. These issues include the ‘military industrial compound’ dimension of the Navy, the often unspoken aspects of civil-military relations in Brazil and the competition for budget between branches.

Pryce maps out the debate about whether Brazil wants a brown, green or blue water Navy, but fails to contextualise the process in the hardships of a troubled civil-military relationship in a ‘recently established’ democracy. He analyses the Navy as if it was a single by-product of wider state determinations, without opening up the ‘black-box’ and examining the diverse layers of interaction between the various existing actors. As I will argue, Brazil’s naval expansion is not a ‘quiet’ one, nor is it particularly surprising. It is rooted in the way the Brazilian defence establishment rethinks its role in a ‘new, global Brazil’ whilst taking into account the complex relationship between the country’s Armed Forces and the Executive branch.

Since the 1964 Military Coup, the civil-military relationship has yet to be seen as a positive factor in the country’s defence establishment. For example, the fact that even though military rule ceased in 1985, it was not until 1999 that Brazil’s Ministry of Defence was even established. Before that, armed forces commanders would report directly to the President and be classed as Ministers (each branch had its own Ministry), thus retaining a disproportionate amount of political leverage. Despite a reduction in leverage in recent years, ‘old-schoolers’ frequently attempt to retain this imbalance of power. The civil-military relationship in the country still represents a rather turbulent sea to navigate, with constant fears of revanchism and mistrust.

The branches of the military have always competed for prestige and, just as important, budget. This competition materialises in the pursuit of self-justified ‘pet projects’. The nuclear-powered submarine is one of those projects where all three branches of the military competed to obtain an edge on nuclear technology, pursuing different courses of action. The Navy emerged ‘victorious’ in this process where building a Nuclear Submarine is seen as the final seal of excellence in in-force technological development as part of the ‘military industrial compound’ dimension of the Navy.

How has Brazilian defence policy embraced this industrial dimension? Each branch creates policy on its own terms, whilst the Ministry play the more passive role of coordination. Once again, the recognition of a national savoir-faire is part of the reason why Brazil has sought to natively develop and build ships. At the same time, the defence sector (across all branches) will only issue tenders for imports of military material that involve heavy technology-transfer and, in most cases, national manufacturing. An intense concern of Brazilian defence stakeholders is that relying on non-native technologies could restrict military capabilities in critical moments, or even create potential weaknesses in Brazil’s defence apparatus. This supports the belief that technological development – even if detached from immediate tactical or strategic considerations – is paramount to the country’s defence grand strategy.

Last but not least, understanding the submarine as a device intended for ‘swaggering’ rather than for actual strategic/tactical purposes could be conceptually useful for in-branch, between-branch and external audiences. The concept of swaggering can be defined as a display of might which:

“…is not aimed directly at dissuading another state from attacking, at repelling attacks, nor at compelling it to do something specific. The objectives for swaggering are (…) displaying one’s military might (…) and buying or building the era’s most prestigious weapons. (…) it aims to enhance the national pride of a people or to satisfy the personal ambitions of its ruler” (Art, 1980, p.10).

From an in-branch perspective, sailors seem more-or-less satisfied to become a blue-water Navy. The myth of a ‘strong / big Navy’ is common, and Naval officers are embedded in a culture in which they aspire to command an aircraft carrier or a nuclear submarine – projecting power far from home – very few see a successful career endpoint as commanders of patrol ships. The Brazilian Navy is also investing in smaller vessels, like the Macaé-class and the Amazonas-class offshore patrol ships yet they cost a fraction of the nuclear programme and are even more insignificant if compared to the broader re-equipment of the fleet. Take a symptomatic grandeur; the Brazilian Navy’s ambition to operate three aircraft carriers and have the southern hemisphere’s largest submarine force by 2050.

From a between-branch perspective, maintaining a big Navy means increased resources channelled from the defence budget. This means more ships, more support structures and, consequently, the need for more personnel, more command posts and more responsibility that, in turn, requires higher salaries. If the force can assert its usefulness and efficiency to the Ministry of Defence, there is a belief that it is more likely to receive greater resources than its counterparts.

President Rousseff proudly declared that Brazil is now part of a limited group of states that have access to nuclear submarines, making comparisons to those who have a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, an old aspiration in Brasilia. Rousseff also boasted that natively building submarines was a ‘symbol of a new Brazil being created’, highlighting the importance of ideational factors in the decision to obtain this technology. Even if we are not sure how these vectors of power will be useful, it is likely that – one way or the other – they will, even if only to assert that Brazil is a country that deserves to be considered in the great power club. Great powers have great navies; it always has been so. Making this particular pitch allows the Navy to get buy-in from the Ministry of Defence and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Would the rise of a powerful Brazilian Navy raise complex diplomatic questions? I wouldn’t worry too much about the possibility of nuclear proliferation. Brazil has agreed not to develop nuclear weapons but wishes to retain nuclear technology for other purposes, something that can prove to be complicated within the non-proliferation regime, constantly requiring delicate diplomatic management. Exporting nuclear technology (especially to ‘rogue’ actors) would certainly backfire and cause more trouble than good. I would agree with the argument that Brazil seeks to affirm itself and be part of the club, rather than destabilise the delicate nuclear regime.

Which brings me to my second point about diplomacy: Brazil wants to be part of the club of great powers and wants to be recognised –acta, non verba – as a peer. Brazil, therefore, doesn’t want to be part of an agreement with NATO that makes them a ‘follower’ rather than a genuine ‘partner’. If NATO wants to approach Brazil for initiatives for expanding cooperation regarding the South Atlantic, it has to do so by courting Brazil’s legitimacy as a regional power and fully-fledged partner in the area. Whether this is a political possibility across both Southern and Northern latitudes over the Atlantic, remains to be seen.

By any rate, it is unlikely that Brazil’s nuclear submarine will be seen as projecting power from its coasts anytime soon. The dual purpose of the Brazilian defence procurement makes it hard to sum up a detailed answer to the question of where Admirals are going. Are they more concerned with the defence industry or with operationality? Are they seeking means to swagger internationally or are they hedging (im)possible futures? Are they in line with, or rather trying to shape, Brazil’s defence and foreign policy grand strategies? If I can allow myself, here’s a cautionary note: it seems more probable that Brazil’s future naval challenges will look something like the 1961-63 Lobster War than like the Battle of the Pacific. Unchallenged control of the South Atlantic is a delusional desire. The ‘quiet expansion’ of the Brazilian Navy is far from quiet, even if it does not get the same amount of attention than the naval endeavours of China and India.

* This was re-published from Security Dilemmas, a blog by the Institute for Conflict, Cooperation and Security (ICCS), at the University of Birmingham.

Russia can count on the BRICs… to say nothing.

The crisis in Ukraine, if it escalates further, could spell trouble for the BRICs*.

Brazil is home to some 500,000 Ukrainians (the third largest Ukrainian diaspora in the world) and the two countries have committed to a long-term partnership in space technology development (rockets and satellites). India, similarly, has established long-term defense contracts and cooperation agreements (in areas such as nuclear safety) with Ukraine. Indo-Ukranian ties, it is true, pale in comparison to Russia’s long term political and military relation with India; but they are not negligible.

In contrast, China has very little to lose (China’s investment in Ukraine has been hugely exaggerated, based on unconfirmed figures and details of aid and investment that have likely not come to fruition, as is the case with most Chinese OFDI). But China is not sympathetic to Russia’s support for irredentist movements in East and, especially, Central Asia, and staunchly opposed to the redrawing of state borders on the bases of ethnic ties (if Putin wanted Chinese support he should’ve couched his actions in terms of historical rights and strategic value).

Neither of these countries is likely to speak out publicly against Russia. As I have argued before in several places, the BRICS are experts in avoiding elephants in the room. BRICS summits, like the one to take place later this year in Fortaleza (Brazil), are a forum for talking about pie in the sky ideas, not solving actual problems of global order or disputes between the member countries. Probably the only thing the BRICS agree on is that it hurts their cause to air their grievances in public (though they don’t agree on what that cause is).

But neither are they likely to come out in support of Russia. In 2008, when Russia crashed China’s party and fought with Georgia over South Ossetia in the middle of the Beijing Olympics, China withheld support and pressured the other members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization to do the same. China has and will likely continue to hedge and distance itself from the present crisis.

India kept remarkably quiet during the 2008 war despite having no discernible stake in Georgia (it had just very recently signed a nuclear deal with the US), so it is even more and will likely to do so now. The Russian press will trumpet the recent declaration by National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon that Russia has “legitimate interests” in Ukraine (which is true but meaningless), but India’s position will likely be one of favoring peaceful negotiation and multilateral dialogue.

Brazil was also absolutely silent during the Russo-Georgian war. In 2008, Brazilian foreign policy was arguably at the peak of its activeness and visibility. President Luis Inácio Lula da Silva was treated as an international rockstar and David Rothkopf even went so far as to anoint foreign minister Celso Amorim as the “world’s best foreign minister” (whatever that means). The situation today is very different. Not only does Brazil have much more of a stake in Ukraine than in Georgia (where it had no real interests), but Brazil no longer has the international presence it had years ago. President Dilma Roussef has pulled Brazil back from the international spotlight, and Brazil today gets more international press for its domestic unrest than for its foreign actions. Brazil has been especially cautious in engaging with issues of international security in the past few years, abstaining in the UN Security Council vote on Libya in 2011 and distancing itself from the crisis in Syria. The inaction on Libya, which many observers in the US viewed as a bold stance was actually tame and passive if compared to Brazil’s mediation efforts and “no” vote on sanctions against Iran a year earlier. So far Brazilian officials have issued no statement regarding the situation in Ukraine–the Foreign Ministry’s Twitter account is probably the only one in the whole world not bursting with tweets about Ukraine. We can expect them to remain largely quiet until after the crisis is over, and only retroactively support whatever mutual understanding is arrived at.

At the end of the day, this crisis will not be the death of the BRICs but it will make many people stop caring about whether it’s alive.

*Yes, I’m ignoring South Africa here, and usually do when discussing the BRICs. I’m still waiting to be convinced that I shouldn’t…

Operation Ágata: Brazil’s war on crime, drugs and much, much more.

Brazilian Navy Warship somewhere on the Plata Basin. Printed in white letters: "All for the fatherland"

Brazilian Navy Warship somewhere on the Plata Basin. Printed in white letters: “All for the fatherland” (Source: Brazilian Navy)

Brazil is conducting a major military operation in its southern borders. Named Ágata 5 (not to be confused with Operation Agatha), this is the fifth such operation since the beginning of last year, part of a new systematic effort from the Brazilian government to enhance border control, fight illicit activities and improve the overall reach of the state in these border areas. The operation is impressive, not only for its size and scope but also for what it represents.

Let’s start with the numbers. The over 10,000-strong (9,000 uniformed, 1,000 civilians) effort comprises all three Armed Forces and 30 civilian agencies and will last nearly 30 days, being the largest of its kind in Brazil and among the largest ever conducted in South America. It features Urutu and Cascavel armored cars, infantry units, UAVs, F5 fighter jets, Super Tucanos, helicopters and 30 ships (war ships and patrol ships) in a concerted effort to interdict traffickers by sea, land and air in the 3.9 thousand kilometers of borders with Paraguay, Argentina and Uruguay. But, interestingly, it also includes a hospital ship and medical personnel tasked with “civil-social actions” for local populations (ACISO, in Portuguese): they expect to perform 19,000 medical and 21,000 odontological consultations in the course of the operation.

Operation Ágata in all its instalments is a landmark for three reasons. First, it is the first real effort Brazil has made to assume a role in regional security commensurate with its size and ambitions. After decades of neglect and denial, Brazil seems to be slowly coming to grips with the international and domestic threats posed by these “ungoverned spaces“. Without serious improvement in border control and monitoring, no amount of “pacification” in the favelas (Brazil’s other ungoverned spaces) will do the trick, and unless Brazil shoulders the costs of actual engagement, calls for regional security cooperation will likely amount to little more than words.

Second, it marks a shift in Brazil’s stance of the use of military personnel for border security and, especially, counter-narcotics operations. The military – and many civilian defense “experts” – have long opposed taking on these tasks for fear that it would divert precious resources from they think is the “real” mission of fighting Brazil’s enemies (hypothetical great powers that might want to poach Brazil’s natural riches). They also worry that exposing troops to criminal activities will invite corruption into their ranks. These and other objections are still very common in Brazil, but that notwithstanding, Operation Ágata indicates that tasks are now a major priority in Brazil’s defense and security policy, which bodes well for civilian control of the military. The fact that the operation is being conducted by the Ministry of Defense and, specifically, the newly-created Joint Chief of Staff (EMCFA, in Portuguese), is also a plus for interoperability – mitigating the traditional competition between the three branches – and civilian control.

Third, in planning and conducting the operations Brazil has made an explicit effort of informing and coordinating with other South American countries, so as to allay fears of “Brazilian imperialism”. This is particularly relevant because Brazil has been consistently unwilling or unable to acknowledge the possibility that its newfound economic and political weight, as well as new defense plans (see here, in Portuguese), may be threatening to its neighbors (a lack of what Booth and Wheeler call “security dilemma sensibility“). These efforts are welcome, but unlikely to be sufficient. Inviting officers from neighboring countries as observers does not necessarily eliminate misgivings, as Brazil should well know from its long history of reluctant participation in US DEA/Southcom missions in Latin America. Not surprisingly, some in Paraguay, Argentina and Bolivia have reacted negatively to the operation, worried that Brazil’s actions indicate that the country is growing more inclined toward using force in regional affairs. This is especially worrisome for countries that have, in the past couple of months, stepped on the toes of their giant neighbor.

Overall, Operation Ágata is a positive development that should be welcomed by advocates of a more rational defense policy and of greater Brazilian engagement in regional security affairs, even as it presents Brazil with the challenge of offering assurances and voice opportunities to its neighbors to prevent further blowback. To the extent that this is the flip side of recent efforts at combating urban violence and criminality, there is one crucial ingredient missing: demand. And herein lies the greatest challenge. If Brazil fails to move on drug law reform and focuses its effort too much on policing and combating, it runs the risk of getting bogged down in its own endless war on drugs.

*Post co-authored with Daniel Rio Tinto

China-Brazil Relations and Dilma’s China Trip

I have an article on China-Brazil relations in the latest edition of Harvard Asia Quarterly, which you’ll be able to check out here later at some point. Meanwhile, here’s a long quote that sums up the spirit of the article:

China-Brazil relations have attracted a great deal of interest in recent years. This is due to significant changes in the intensity of bilateral relations in the last decade – with China becoming Brazil’s largest trade partner in 2009 – and China’s growing presence in Latin America. It is also due to the hype surrounding so-called “emerging countries”. I argue that while China’s economic presence in Brazil is unmistakably increasing, this should be interpreted neither as a consequence of close political ties nor as a development that invariably contributes to this end. In fact, the intricacies of managing the complex and asymmetric interdependence that results from this increase, especially its domestic political reverberations, have actually worked against Brazil-China political relations.

Some of the similarities that were supposed to bring them together, such as their partial rejection of “liberal” norms and principles and the adoption of more state-centered, nationalistic and mercantilist development models, actually create friction and push them apart. The global financial crisis amplified and cast a light on these ambivalences and paradoxes that were already present in the Brazil-China relationship.

The increased competition Brazil faces from China in its domestic and third markets has sparked fears of “de-industrialization” or “primarization”. Even if this anxiety is largely unfounded, it has empowered already strong protectionist voices and fueled resistance to China, making it harder to sustain a strategy of non-confrontation, mainly where trade and currency issues are concerned.

A particularly useful illustration of this strained relationship is the controversy surrounding Chinese investments in Brazil. Lauded by many as a sign of new times, the surge of Chinese investment last year didn’t assuage Brazilian grievances regarding bilateral trade, but instead reflected the general anti-China feeling predominant in Brazil.

[When Chinese investments finally began to arrive in Brazil in 2010,] enthusiasm gave way to deep suspicion of Chinese intentions and the prospect of Chinese companies holding a relevant stake in Brazilian natural resources and critical industries. The anti-China lobby, which used to complain about the lack of Chinese investment in Brazil, started to vocally denounce these investments as attempts by the Chinese government to buy up Brazilian land and resources, distort markets and destroy Brazilian industry “from within”. Sinophobia has also played a part in recent legislation approved by the Brazilian Congress limiting land purchases by all foreign companies and individuals. These actors argue that Chinese FDI is qualitatively different from that of traditional sources because of the controlled nature of the Chinese economy, China’s selectivity in allowing inbound FDI, and the close association between the investing companies and the Chinese state.

Apart from the contentious issues of bilateral trade and investment, Brazil and China are finding themselves pressed to abandon grandstanding rhetoric and abstract notions of “multipolarization” and South-South cooperation in favor of a more pragmatic discussion of the issues at hand, such as the rules of international trade, currency, nuclear non-proliferation, UN Security Council reform, climate change and human rights, where interest clearly don’t respect an imaginary “North/South” divide. Furthermore, both countries’ growing capabilities and interests abroad could also create new frictions. Some Brazilian officials are wary of China’s growing economic presence in South America, a region that Brazil has come to consider as its own sphere of influence, and in Africa, where Brazilian companies are falling behind the Chinese in the rush for resources, business deals, and markets.

These problems are unlikely to dissipate or be resolved, and in fact seem poised to worsen in coming years. China’s continued growth and persisting domestic imbalances will make sure that its demand for commodities, exports of industrial goods, and outward expansion of capital maintain a rising trajectory.

Internal political dynamics, including the coming leadership succession, will probably make China less prone to compromise and more nationalistic. Brazil’s own economic and political environment also seem to be moving in ever more nationalistic and protectionist directions. President Dilma Rousseff and most of her new staff are generally more hawkish on China than their predecessors and have declared rethinking relations with China a top priority.

At first glance, this contrarian view of Brazil-China relations seems very gloomy but what it suggests is actually not extraordinary. What it means is that there are very real opportunities for cooperation and mutual benefit in trade, bilateral investment, and cooperation in various fields; yet before they can seize these opportunities, there are daunting challenges that need to be addressed and legitimate disagreements with which both countries will just have to learn to live. Their success or failure in doing so will have an important impact on political and economic relations in Latin America and, to some extent, in the world.

The article actually discusses at some length the controversy surrounding Chinese investment in Brazil, but for that  you’ll have to read the whole piece.

I’m still mulling over Dilma’s recent China trip and how it relates to all of this, but overall I think the results from that fit my argument quite nicely (though I admit that there may be some confirmation bias at work here). Despite all the talk about recasting relations with China, there were no surprises or major advances. The two most important topics on the political agenda – Brazil’s bid for a permanent UNSC seat and China’s demand for market-economy status recognition – got a lot of attention but didn’t get any closer to being settled. Some other treaties and agreements were signed, but most of them were just fillers.

On the business side of the trip, important announcements were made and two relevant disputes were settled, kinda: Embraer gets to stay in China, sell some US$ 1.4 bn worth of regional jets over the next few years and eventually start assembling its luxury jets there, but that doesn’t really solve their problems with intellectual property protection and procurement biases; also, China will finally start to buy pork products from Brazil, but only from 3 of the 13 suppliers that applied for licenses last year.

Some very interesting investment projects were disclosed, and many Chinese companies made their interest in Brazil very clear. But as with other announcements over the past year – not to mention years before – some of these investments will take a while, if they happen at all. One of the most widely cited items to come from the trip was Foxconn’s declared intent to invest around US$12 bn to assemble iPads in a new plant in São Paulo and perhaps start producing some components in the near future, employing dozens of thousands of engineers and about 100 thousand workers in total. While this makes for a great headline, experts suggest that these figures are substantially inflated and that despite the impression of finality given by Brazilian officials, this is still a vaguely defined plan that will have to be negotiated with other parties involved (like Apple).

Overall, Dilma’s trip provided an opportune occasion to seal certain deals, and may even have been necessary for a couple of them, but trade and investment flows will keep trending up regardless of presidential visits,and one would be remiss to expect any significant change in the structure of bilateral trade or in the investment strategies of Chinese companies. That is, the “imbalances” that so worry Brazil will not be corrected overnight (assuming there’s even something to be corrected) by any number of deals.

The unusual length of the trip (almost a week) is certainly a positive factor that suggests real political will on the part of Brasilia, but the sloppy, last-minute, work that was done in preparation for the trip and the severely flawed analysis that informs some of the premises that guided the Brazilian team reveal that Brazil is not quite ready to engage China more actively.

Many analysts were positively surprised by the generally warm tone adopted by Brazilian officials during the trip, but why should they? Bilateral exchanges and BRIC summits are hardly the venues for serious criticism or real problem solving, and the resulting speeches and communiqués notoriously paper over disagreements and tensions and exaggerate the prospects for cooperation. As I suggest in the article mentioned above – and in more detail in a forthcoming chapter here -, it’s crucial to look beyond diplomatic doublespeak and take into account the distributional effects of bilateral economic relations and how the relevant interest groups and bureaucratic actors in Brazil mobilize to affect policy and set the – mostly negative – tone of public discourse with regard to China.

In sum, the trip was as productive as one could realistically expect it to be, but despite calls for a “new phase” of China-Brazil relations the visit was overwhelmingly marked by continuity, not change. By overemphasizing its few significant accomplishments both parties will likely miss once again the opportunity to soberly assess what went wrong, what was missing and what has to be improved, not only in preparation for the next bilateral exchange but also in the development of a more solid and coherent engagement strategy with a strong institutional framework.

When life gives you lemons… send in the marines…

The earthquake that hit Haiti this Tuesday was one of the most devastating natural disasters in recent years, aggravated by the fact that Haiti wasn’t that good to begin with. A lot has already been said and written in the media and the blogosphere about it, so I’ll stick to just a few comments on the probable implications for two of the main players in the region: US and Brazil.

In Brazil, the earthquake will probably put a cap on the ongoing debate about exit strategies as an increase in military personnel will be necessary to provide relief in the short to medium-term. Also, though it is still impossible to fully assess the extent of the damage caused by the earthquake, it will certainly have lasting consequences for social stability, security and governance, undoing many of the achievements of the MINUSTAH in the past four years and making it impossible for Brazil to start withdrawing its troops as early as many were starting to predict these last few months. On the other hand, the death of 14 Brazilian soldiers and one high-level civilian official (by the latest available count) — the first deaths since the start of MINUSTAH in 2004 — could very well force Brazil to reconsider the risks and benefits of staying there once the situation cools down.

For the US, this comes as somewhat of an opportunity — as terrible as it may sound –, and one that the Obama administration seems to be seizing. The pledge to respond not only with aid in money and goods but also with as many as 3500 army troops (about half of the total contingent of MINUSTAH) and two thousand marines for what Secretary Clinton has called “long-term aid”,  is not only a display of generosity and solidarity, but also a calculated move intended to curry goodwill among its Latin American neighbors. As Clinton has suggested, this “long-term aid” could extend to well beyond the needs of disaster relief and into the realm of peacekeeping and state/peacebuilding.

The danger here is that the move could be interpreted in a different light by the countries in the region. These countries, usually suspicious of the US — and remembering the fiasco of American intervention in Haiti in 1994 — could take issue with the sudden inflow of US troops in the country, even for such supposedly noble purpose. This is especially true for Brazil, who has led the military component of MINUSTAH since its inception in 2004 and has roughly 1200 soldiers deployed there. Though Brazil would probably be more than glad to share some of the burden, the prospect of being outshined by such a surge in US aid and troops would certainly cause consternation in Brasilia.