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Ties to Japan are key to help Brazil adapt to an increasingly Asia-centric world

By Oliver Stuenkel
December 26, 2018

As Asia is yet again becoming the economic and political center of the world, Brazil remains largely unprepared to adapt to this new reality. Brazil’s geographic distance (more than 18,000 kilometers from São Paulo to Tokyo) remains a hurdle, making it harder for Brazilian businessmen, politicians, journalists and academics to frequently travel to and engage with Asian counterparts. Despite the fact that Brazil's trade with Asian countries has increased markedly over the past years and now represents the most important trading partner by far, and despite the traditionally large and active Japanese diaspora, Brazilian elites and society at large remains largely ignorant of Asia. The continent that accounts for more than 60% of the world’s population remains a rarely discussed topic in Brazil’s public debate.

As a consequence, far too few Brazilians speak Asian languages, and far more students at Brazilian elite universities spend their exchange semester in Europe or the United States rather than in one of Asia’s megacities, several of which are among the world’s most important urban centers of the 21st century. In the face of Asia's growing influence in Latin America, the need to gain a better understanding of Asia has never been greater. After all, a sophisticated understanding of Asian affairs is crucial to comprehend global political developments, and it is increasingly important that Brazil’s future elites are comfortable in such an Asia-centric scenario. Questions about issues such as climate change, innovation, urbanization, public transport, commodity prices, digitization or nuclear security are central to grasping the future of global affairs – and none can be understood without having an Asia specialist at the table.

In this context, ties to Japan hold vast potential to help Brazilian society to gain a more sophisticated understanding of Asia, given its combination of world-class universities, its vibrant public debate, free media, and its central role in Asia’s economy and political debate. As any visitor to Japanese universities or think tanks can readily attest, the country offers a privileged perspective on the most urgent political and economic issues in Asia today. The country offers an ideal environment for international students, journalists or policy makers to develop the skills necessary to navigate in an Asia-centric world of the 21st century. Even students who do not speak Japanese fluently find an intellectually sophisticated environment at top-notch universities such as Waseda, Ritsumeikan or Tokyo University.

On my recent trip to Japan, I learned a lot about local politics, culture and history – yet equally relevant, I had the privilege to discuss issues relevant to my research on Asian geopolitical dynamics as a whole, which involves not only Japan, but also North Korea, China, and the US role in Asia with leading researchers on these subjects – all areas where Brazil suffers from a shortage of specialists.

Stronger cooperation among Brazilian and Japanese universities, think tanks, parliamentarians and journalists could help Brazilian society recover lost ground and develop the knowledge necessary to develop meaningful strategies to adapt to an increasingly Asia-centric world, anticipate developments and thus help companies, universities and civil society seek stronger engagement across Asia. That involves serious investments in exchange programs between high schools and universities, but also exploring opportunities for partnership in other areas. For example, Brazilian newspapers lack correspondents across Asia, and usually translate articles from US or UK-based newspapers to report event in Japan, China or elsewhere. Strengthening the number of articles from Japanese media outlets in Brazilian newspapers about Asian affairs would help Brazilian readers appreciate a diversity of viewpoints on such topics.

For Brazil, managing the relationship to Asia requires a strategic reorientation of historic proportions. Only if we gain a profound understanding of Asian society, economy and strategic culture – not only in the Foreign Ministry, but also in universities, companies, state governments and NGOs – can we learn how to make the best of a more Asia-centric world. Our economic well being in the next decades depends on it. In this endeavor, Japan can be a vital partner.

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