Brazil: National Involvement in the Indian Ocean Region

15 September 2011 FDI Team

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Bruno de Paiva
FDI Research Assistant
Indian Ocean Research Programme


Key Points

  • Brazil began its transition towards being a global power under the presidency of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. The Rousseff Government is continuing that trajectory.
  • It has strengthened its bilateral and multilateral diplomatic relations, trade and “soft power” initiatives throughout the Indian Ocean region.
  • Brazil has become a focal point in a number of groupings relevant to the Indian Ocean region; for example, IBSA and BRICS.
  • Its relations with certain countries, such as Iran, risk harming its strategic objectives.
  • The potential exists for increased future competition between Brazil, India and China in the Indian Ocean region.



Long the country of an unrealised future, Brazil is now reaping the benefits of macroeconomic policies that have calmed inflation, boosted growth, enlarged the middle class and enabled severe social issues to at last begin to be addressed. While many challenges remain, Brazil has, in tandem with those achievements, begun to look outwards and increasingly to see itself as a global, rather than regional power. As a result, Brazil is now engaged with the Indian Ocean region as never before, even if certain initiatives may yet prove to be contrary to its wider strategic objectives.  


Strands of Brazilian Involvement in the Indian Ocean Region

Bilateral Diplomacy

Much of Brazil’s involvement in the Indian Ocean over the past five years has been through increased diplomacy. Two countries that have seen some of the largest increases in their diplomatic relations with Brazil are East Timor and Mozambique. This comes as little surprise – all three countries are former Portuguese colonies and are part of the Comunidade dos Países de Língua Portuguesa (CPLP), an organisation comprising Portuguese-speaking countries. In October 2008, then President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva visited Mozambique, where he signed a series of energy and medicine agreements with the Mozambican Government. President Lula also visited East Timor in July 2008 where six accords, largely related to the exchange of information, were signed.

Brazil has also pursued bilateral diplomatic relations with the largest country in the Indian Ocean region, India. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited Brazil in September 2006, the first Indian Prime Minister to do so in 38 years. The visit marked the recognition of a “strategic relationship” between both countries. This has been based on shared positions on issues such as the expansion of the United Nations Security Council and their common status as members of the so-called BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) grouping.

Brazil has also expanded its diplomatic relations with India’s neighbour, Sri Lanka. The first Brazilian embassy in Sri Lanka was opened in 2008 in the capital, Colombo. Before then, Brazil had maintained ties with Sri Lanka through its embassy in New Delhi. The Brazilian Minister for External Affairs, Antonio Patriota, visited Sri Lanka in March 2011, where he detailed plans for Brazilian co-operation on various infrastructure, agriculture and engineering projects.

Diplomatic relations between Brazil and Indonesia, the second most populous country in the Indian Ocean region, have also increased in recent years. Like India, Indonesia also signed a strategic partnership with Brazil following a visit by Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in November 2008. The partnership has created opportunities for increased bilateral co-operation in science, technology and biofuel production.

Brazil has also consolidated on the membership of itself and Australia in the Cairns Group agricultural organisation to strengthen bilateral relations. In September 2010, both countries signed a Memorandum of Understanding for the Establishment of an Enhanced Partnership, which calls for increased political dialogue on areas of shared interest, such as trade & investment, science & technology and agriculture.

Middle Eastern states have also been the target of increased diplomatic relations from Brazil. Saudi Arabia and Brazil signed a series of accords in May 2009 covering increased co-operation between the two countries in the energy sector (both nations are major oil-producers). Also covered was increased political consultation and co-operation on infrastructure such as railroads, aviation, road construction and telecommunications.

At a time when much of the global community is wary of Iran, Brazil’s diplomatic involvement with Tehran has increased, particularly in relation to Iran’s nuclear ambitions. In May 2010, in the face of impending United Nations sanctions against Iran, Tehran, along with Brazil and Turkey, signed a joint declaration in which Iran agreed to send low-enriched uranium to Turkey in return for enriched fuel for a research reactor. While this increased Brazil’s global profile, it did not necessarily increase its global prestige.

Multilateral Diplomacy

Brazil’s multilateral diplomatic involvement in the region has not been solely limited to solving the Iranian nuclear issue. In 2003, Brazil co-founded the India-Brazil-South Africa Dialogue Forum (IBSA) along with the two other member states. IBSA’s purpose is to increase the multilateral exchange of information and technologies as well as to increase co-operation in areas including, but not limited to, agriculture, defence, education, social development and trade. The forum has greatly benefitted Brazil in terms of increasing its presence in the region. The standings of India and South Africa as two of the most prominent states in the region gives Brazil a strong avenue to further augment its regional involvement.

Defence has also been a key component of IBSA. In May 2008, the first IBSAMAR naval exercises were held in South Africa with vessels and personnel from all of the three member states. The second IBSAMAR exercises were held in September 2010, also in South Africa. Brazil and South Africa have also contributed to the development and manufacture of the A-Darter missile. First tested in 2010, the missile is a short range air-to-air missile which is due to be used by both the South African and Brazilian Air Forces. Although its military involvement in the Indian Ocean is small compared to that of the US, China and India, Brazilian involvement in arrangements such as those above may be a sign that it is seeking to have greater involvement in the region via its defence forces.

Relations between Mozambique and Brazil have not been limited to the bilateral. In August 2010 those two countries, along with Japan, announced a US$13 million initiative to turn arid savannah in the Nacala region of northern Mozambique into productive agricultural land. The initiative’s aim is to make Mozambique a self-sufficient food producer by the end of the decade. While Japan has its own strategic interests in the region, its traditionally positive relations with Brazil, along with its agricultural expertise, make it a good partner for Brazil to co-operate with. Japan undertook its own agricultural development programme in Brazil three decades ago, helping to make it a major food producer. The cultural and linguistic bonds that Brazil shares with Mozambique have also helped to facilitate the initiative.

Brazil may also be looking to increase its diplomatic relations with regional Indian Ocean organisations. Brazil has already expressed an interest in being a part of the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS), a forum which explores regional issues from a naval perspective. India, Australia, Indonesia, Mozambique, Saudi Arabia, Sri Lanka and South Africa are participants in IONS. Given their growing bilateral relations with Brasilia, there is a strong potential for Brazil to play a role in the forum.

The Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Co-operation (IOR-ARC) could also be another regional diplomatic avenue Brazil may wish to explore. India’s chairing of the organisation, along with its own regional interests may see IOR-ARC grow in relevance. Should this be the case, Brazil could have a viable regional outlet with which to further pursue its interests in the Indian Ocean. Improvements in bilateral relations with Australia could also occur through IOR-ARC, as Australia is currently the Vice-Chair and will assume the role of Chair in 2013. It is believed that Indonesia may follow Australia in those roles, which, if true, could also pave the way for stronger Brazil-Indonesia relations.

Soft Power and Trade

Brazil has used numerous soft power techniques as a means to increase its involvement in the Indian Ocean. In November 2009, the Brazilian Government announced plans to invest US$300 million to develop infrastructure in Mozambique. Planned projects include an upgrade of Nacala Airport in the north and the construction of a coal terminal in the port city of Beira. The building of a 1,000 kilometre north-south power line which would link hydro-electric, coal- and gas-fired power stations in central and northern Mozambique with the main consuming areas in the south of the country is another major Brazilian-funded project.

East Timor – a fellow Portuguese-speaking country – has also benefitted from Brazilian soft power initiatives. The two states have an education co-operation programme under which fifty Brazilian professors are training Timorese teachers. The Brazilian Education Ministry runs a scholarship programme under which postgraduate students from developing countries are able to study in Brazil. East Timor, like India, is among the countries to have taken part in the programme. In 2008, Brazil and East Timor began the third phase of a joint initiative to train East Timorese military police.

During the presidential and legislative elections of 2007, Brazil sent an observer mission to East Timor to assist with education, training, justice and security matters, for which it was highly commended by both Dili and other regional states. Another  mission is expected to be sent for the 2012 elections.

Recent years have seen Brazil capitalise on its economic growth and increase its trade with Indian Ocean states. Bilateral trade between Brazil and India has risen sharply from $US400 million in 2000 to $US7.8 billion in 2010. In the period 2008-11 alone, trade between the two countries rose nearly threefold. According to the Brazilian Ministry of Development, Industry and Foreign Trade (MDIC), Brazilian-Saudi Arabian trade totalled US$4 billion between January and October 2010, up from $US2.5 billion in 2005. Two-way trade between Brazil and Qatar has also soared, totalling US$515 million in 2010 according to SECEX, the trade division of MDIC. This is up from US$120 million in 2005.

Such trading activity has not been confined to the Middle East. According to the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, trade between Brazil and Australia totalled $1.53 billion in 2009. This was, however, a significant decrease on the year before, due to the decrease in Australian coal exports to Brazil. According to the Jakarta Post, trade between Brazil and Indonesia totalled US$2 billion between January and September 2010, up from US$1.5 billion during the same period in 2009. Although the numbers are modest when compared to the Brazil-China figure of US$56.2 billion in 2010, the increase suggests Brazil has indeed placed a greater emphasis on the region.

Brazil’s Interests in the Region

A key reason for Brazil’s heightened activity in the Indian Ocean region is related to its global strategy. Foreign policy under the Lula Administration was devised with the ambition of changing the global architecture from US-led Western hegemony to a multipolar order. The Lula Government saw this as being more favourable to Brazilian interests. It helps to explain Brazil’s high involvement in the formation of the IBSA and BRICS alliances – two multilateral groups containing significant Indian Ocean nations and, in the case of BRICS, other growing global non-Western powers with regional interests. The joint initiative with Japan to increase agriculture in northern Mozambique, as well as its joint efforts with Turkey on the Iranian nuclear issue, also point towards this rationale.

The Lula Administration also saw Brazil express its desire for a permanent seat in the UN Security Council, something which would require broad support. The growth of Brazil’s involvement in the Indian Ocean region may help it in attaining this goal through possible increased support. Brazil’s regional involvement has mainly consisted of diplomacy and soft power, which could boost backing from a region facing an increased Indian and Chinese naval presence along with the continuing military presence of France and the US. Brazil’s involvement in the Iran nuclear issue and its desire to mediate in the Middle East peace process may also convey to the region the impression that it is committed and competent in dealing with regional security issues.

Brazil has sought to consolidate its position as a leading global producer of biofuels and is the world’s second-largest producer, and largest exporter, of ethanol fuel. The Brazilian Government has pursued greater co-operation with Kenya and Mozambique on biofuels production, through efforts led by the government-owned agricultural research entity Empresa Brasileira de Pesquisa Agropecuária (EMBREPA).Agreements on further biofuels co-operation have also been signed by Brazil with India and Indonesia, which will help to strengthen its status as a leading biofuels manufacturer.

Implications for the Region

The key impact of Brazil’s increased involvement in the region for Australia is potentially its influence on regional states where Australia has been traditionally influential. East Timor is a prime example. As mentioned above, Brazil has increased its involvement in East Timor, with which it has a number of shared cultural and linguistic bonds. East Timor, however, is also important for Australia, as it is geographically located close to Australia’s northern shores. As a result, Australia itself has heavily invested diplomatic, financial and military resources in East Timor since the end of Indonesian rule in 1999.

Brazil’s increased interests in East Timor could potentially affect Australia’s influence in that country, along with its relations with Brasilia. Such a predicament, however, is not the only eventuality. Australia could benefit from any increased Brazilian influence in East Timor by consolidating its own growing relations with Brazil and identifying areas in East Timor where they can act in partnership. This is a possibility that Brazil could be open to, as it has acted in Mozambique in conjunction with Japan, as well as in Iran in conjunction with Turkey. Brazil’s linguistic similarities with East Timor, as well as its various soft power initiatives such as the aforementioned education co-operation programme, could compliment Australia’s work in East Timor.

Mutual co-operation with East Timor may also have the effect of preventing regional rivals India and China from increasing their own influence there. Brazil already faces increased competition from those countries; pursuing further relations in conjunction with Australia may allow it to further focus on other parts of the region, such as Mozambique and the rest of eastern Africa. Australia, on the other hand, stands to benefit from such an arrangement as it could lessen the chances of some geostrategic clash occurring so close to its borders.

Brazil’s attempts to pursue greater relations with Iran could negatively affect its long-term standing in the region. The Brazilian Government has invested heavily in its Iran relations. Former President Lula pursued Iran on the basis that it would increase Brazil’s diplomatic clout in the Middle East, as well as cement Brazil’s status as a viable global mediator; this has not been the case. Brazil has also exported goods such as beef and sugar to Iran, via third parties like the United Arab Emirates, in violation of the trade sanctions imposed by the United Nations Security Council due to Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. When Dilma Rousseff took the reins of the Brazilian presidency, however, initial indications were that those trade relations might have been in doubt given her critical views on Iran’s human rights record. In August 2011, however, any uncertainty was removed, when her government recommitted Brazil to continuing Lula’s Iran policy. The decision – and the exports – could yet hinder Brasilia’s chances of achieving its goal of permanent membership on the UN Security Council.

Another likely impact on the region from Brazil’s increased involvement may be greater competition from China and India. Overall relations between Brazil and those countries are strong, as can be seen through their growing bilateral trade relations and involvement in the BRICS alliance. As those countries’ economies and influence increase, however, the odds grow that their national interests may be placed above such multilateral relations. Alliances such as BRICS are currently strong due to the fact all member nations are growing or resurgent powers which perceive a greater global impact from working multilaterally, rather than on their own. This will likely shift the other way as each of these countries’ economies and influence grows, meaning that Brazil may well face increased competition from India and China, especially in the Indian Ocean region. Due to the importance of energy security and the presence of raw materials, the region is highly significant to the national interests of all countries; this would be the major factor behind any increased future competitiveness.


The twenty-first century has seen Brazil begin to become a nation of global significance. It has capitalised on its rapid economic growth to increase its involvement in the Indian Ocean region. This has been undertaken through bilateral and multilateral diplomatic initiatives, along with increased trade and aid initiatives to countries in the region. While Brazil has been successful in strengthening its status in the Indian Ocean region, it faces possible future problems from potentially over-investing in some initiatives. Such problems could include a backlash should it continue engaging with Iran, which could also be a barrier to it achieving its ambitions of a permanent UN Security Council seat. In the future, Brazil may also face the possibility of increased competition from fellow rising powers China and India; any such competition will be most manifest in the Indian Ocean region.






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