No-Show by Zelensky: Brazilian President Lula Caught in the G7 Trap
For Brazil, the G7 Hiroshima Summit ended with bitter results. President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva does not take sides with the U.S. or China and seeks diplomatic clout by building its own neutral position in the international community. However, he failed to hold a bilateral meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who made a surprise visit to Hiroshima. This enhanced the reputation that Brazil was closer to China and Russia regarding the Ukraine crisis.
On the morning of May 22, following the closing of the G7 Summit, Lula spoke at a press conference at a hotel in Hiroshima City. The meeting with Zelensky had been scheduled at 3:15 p.m. on May 21. Lula explained, “We waited and kept getting information that they were delayed. So then I met with [the leader of] Vietnam (Prime Minister Phạm Minh Chính). When [the leader of] Vietnam left, the president of Ukraine did not appear. That was, unfortunately, what happened.” Brazil tried to reschedule, but Zelensky left Japan on the evening of May 21.
Preceding the Brazilian president’s press conference, on May 21, Zelensky explained the meeting was not held because of “scheduling reasons,” and said, “I think it disappointed him (Lula).” Although the reason they did not cross paths is unclear, it vividly illustrated the distance between the two countries. Among the major Global South invitees, Lula was the only leader who did not hold talks with Zelensky.
The leading Brazilian paper, O Estado de São Paulo, analyzed, “Lula was caught in the G7 trap.” The article stated the pro-Ukraine G7 side “made Brazil, India, and Indonesia, which tried to take a neutral position, put on a tight skirt,” and with Zelensky’s surprise appearance, the invitees had to go through a loyalty test.
Brazil has clearly stated Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is “a breach of international law.” It is the only BRICS country to vote in favor of the March 2022 UN General Assembly resolution condemning Russia. Although it did not join the economic sanctions, Brazil is closer to the G7 than India, South Africa, and, of course, China. Yet, in Hiroshima, by holding a meeting with Zelensky, India highlighted its cooperative stance toward the G7. For the G7 side, Brazil “seemed very close to President Putin, instead of neutral” (leading paper Folha de Sao Paulo).
Missed the Changing Tide in the International Community
Lula is serving his third term in office from January 2023. He has attended the G7 six times as an invitee and was also present at the 2008 G8 Hokkaido Toyako Summit. A senior official from Brazil’s Foreign Ministry said before the summit, “Though we are an invited nation, compared to other leaders visiting Hiroshima, he has a lot of experience with the G7. He should know how to behave.”
However, the last time Lula attended the summit was in 2009. At the time, Russia was one of the members. It was before the 2014 Russian invasion of Crimea and the trade war between the U.S. and China. There had been many opportunities for the advanced nations to discuss with China and Russia on common ground. Since then, the structure of the international community has changed dramatically. Yet, Lula and his aides “are still trying to cope with outdated mindsets. They were not fully aware of the change within the G7 with enhanced solidarity against Beijing and Moscow.” This was the shared view among the Japanese and Brazilian diplomats.
One outcome Brazil gained from this summit was that, at the bilateral talks, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida stated Japan would start the procedure to waiver visas for Brazilian tourists. The previous Jair Bolsonaro administration decided on a visa exemption for Japan, yet from a reciprocity standpoint, the Lula administration plans to revoke it in October, but the waiver could be granted again in the future. The move is welcomed by business people and the tourism industry in both countries. [Post script: Japan and Brazil agreed on a reciprocal visa waiver effective September 30, 2023.]
With a population of 214 million, Brazil is an overwhelming great power in South America. Having no serious geopolitical conflicts with its 10 neighboring countries is a significant advantage. In 2024, it will assume the G20 presidency. The number of Japanese Brazilians exceeds 2 million, and the country has a traditional relation with Japan. With rising tensions in the international situation, there is no doubt Brazil is a country Japan should seek closer ties.
This is a translation of the Japanese article published in vol. 79 (May/Jun. 2023) of the Gaiko (Diplomacy) magazine.
Hidetake Miyamoto is the Sao Paulo Bureau Chief of Nikkei Inc. He graduated from Keio University and joined Nikkei in 2002. After working in the Economic News Department, Nagano Bureau, and the Capital Market and Corporate News Department, he was stationed at the Sao Paulo Bureau for five years from April 2012. After serving at the International News Department and the Mexico City Bureau, he has been in his current position since October 2021. He has also studied at Brown University and the National Autonomous University of Mexico.