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Brazil's President Lula travels to China to find support to help end war in Ukraine

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Brazil's president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, is in China this week.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

He expects to meet China's president. And this visit underlines China's influence in South America. China has invested in many countries in that continent, as it has in other places, and it's a big trading partner for Brazil.

FADEL: NPR's South America correspondent Carrie Kahn is in Rio de Janeiro and joins us now. Good morning, Carrie.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Good morning.

FADEL: So, I mean, there's been a lot of talk about China's global role - meeting a deal with Saudi and Iran, hosting world leaders - and questions about what it means for its role on this global stage. If you could just talk about this visit by Brazil's leader and what he's hoping to do while in China.

KAHN: Well, he has a big agenda there for the next couple days. It seems like he's brought half the government with him - ministers, governors, dozens of businesspeople - because overall - you talked about the global politics of it all - this is a visit about trade for him. But 40% of Brazil's exports go to China. It's a lot of beef and soy. China is Brazil's No. 1 trading partner. The U.S. is a distant second.

I was talking about the trip to Rodrigo Zeidan. He's a Brazilian economics professor at NYU in Shanghai. He said he gets that the trip is coming at a time of heightened tensions between the U.S. and China, but not everything is about the U.S.

RODRIGO ZEIDAN: It's not about any message to the West. It's really about realpolitik between two very important trade and investment partners.

KAHN: And that's especially since Brazil's relationship with China deteriorated under the previous far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro. He frequently insulted the Chinese. Lula pledged to bring Brazil back to the world stage.

FADEL: Now, what's on the itinerary for Lula in China? I'm assuming he's meeting with Xi Jinping.

KAHN: Yes, they'll meet on Friday. Brazil and China are also part of the so-called BRICS with Russia, India and South Africa, this global south alliance that says it's a counterbalance to the West. Lula spoke today at the BRICS Development Bank, where he railed against the fact that all trade transactions are in dollars. He wants that to change, with China, to their local currency.

Lula also really wants China to join him in this plan of his to be a mediator in the Ukraine war. Lula talks about building this peace club of nations to broker an end to the war. You know, he is an elder leftist and espouses Brazil's non-aligned global status, which just makes him a - he says - a perfect neutral player in the politics involved. Lula's stand just irks the West, since he never outright condemns Russia's invasion of Ukraine. He refuses to sell ammunition to Ukraine, too. And he just sent his foreign policy adviser to meet with Putin.

FADEL: Well, does Lula have the clout, though, to pull something like that off? I mean, is Brazil a big enough player in the world today to take on that role?

KAHN: Well, when I talk to analysts here in Brazil, they say, no. Lula is punching above his weight. But last time he was president, in the late 2000s, he worked on a nuclear deal with Iran. I was talking with Oliver Stuenkel. He's an international relations professor at Brazil's FGV University. And he said Lula should just stay closer to home and work on things like the environment, not waste the goodwill he already has around the world.

OLIVER STUENKEL: Everybody wants to be friends with Brazil because Brazil is an environmental superpower. But it's not like everybody will eternally sort of support Lula on the foreign policy front.

KAHN: Lula is in the midst of an interesting balancing act with China and with the U.S., and he's very cognizant of China's growing footprint in Latin America and how that worries the U.S., too.

FADEL: NPR's South America correspondent Carrie Kahn in Rio de Janeiro. Thank you so much for your reporting, Carrie.

KAHN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Kahn is NPR's International Correspondent based in Mexico City, Mexico. She covers Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Kahn's reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning news programs including All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and on NPR.org.