“Macau in China's relations with the lusophone world”, an interview with Carmen Amado Mendes 

1. Taking in consideration your excellent academic path, could you tell us more about your academic history? How does it conect to this article in RPBI?  

This article is one of the results of the research project on “the role of Macau in China´s relations with the Portuguese speaking-countries”, which I coordinated during three years at the Centre for Social Studies of the University of Coimbra. During my last sabbatical leave, the Portuguese Foundation for Science and Technology funded my field research in Brazil (July-August 2011), Cape Verde (December 2011), Sao Tome and Principe (December 2011-January 2012), East Timor (January-February 2012), Mozambique (Easter break 2012) and Angola (June-July 2012). I had planned to go to Bissau in August 2012; due to the coup d’état and consequent arrival of part of its political elite in Lisbon, conducted interviews to leaders of the previous Guinea government in Portugal. In total I have done almost 500 interviews to politicians, diplomats, businessmen, journalists, lawyers and academics, which provided the empirical basis of this paper.

I am planning to write a book on China’s relations with the Portuguese-speaking world during my next sabbatical leave, using all this material. I have not been able to do it so far due to my heavy teaching load and other commitments. As a Professor at the University of Coimbra since 2006, I have been teaching at graduate and undergraduate levels, in Portuguese and English, different subjects such as Contemporary China, International Negotiation, Diplomacy, Geo-politics and Geo-strategy, Research Methodologies and Regional Actors and Dynamics; and was head of the International Relations department and director of Master and Bachelor programs. This year I have been particularly busy organizing at the University of Coimbra the next conference of the European Association for Chinese Studies (www.eacs2014.pt), as member of the Board.

2. There’s a high importance level of the Portuguese language to the process of conection between Portuguese-speaking countries and China, intermediated by Macau. Notwithstanding, do you analize this interactional process as something established among them or an ongoing process that needs more investments and attention? Taking in consideration the leading role of China in economic issues, can, in the future, The Macau Forum bring the Portuguese-speaking countries and China to an another level of economic cooperation?

My approach to the Forum for Economic and Trade Cooperation between China and the Portuguese-speaking Countries is backed by a more general understanding of the local political reality rather than focusing on economic results. My idea of focusing on the role of “Macau in China’s Relations with the Lusophone World” emerged from the long periods of time that I have spent in Macau since 1999, when I started my PhD at the School of Oriental and African Studies – University of London. The thesis was later transformed in a book published by Hong Kong University Press: Portugal, China and the Macau Negotiations, which has been considered as “too sensitive” by Portuguese decision-makers. Anyway, I argued that  Portugal did not develop a strategy for the negotiations with China, which was also noticeable in the way it dealt with the issue of securing Portuguese as one of the official languages after the handover. There was never a policy of language in the enclave! Therefore, the importance given to the Portuguese language in Macau is somehow artificial, as you will find very few people in the streets that can actually speak it. But it is very symbolic. It highlights the pragmatism of the Chinese central government, using the Lusophone specificities of this Special Administrative Region, reviving the statute of the Portuguese language and culture in its own territory. The political idea that supported the creation of the Macau Forum is to prove the success of the “one country, two systems” formula, in order to bring Taiwan into the path of national reunification. The formula guarantees political autonomy to the administrative regions. The Forum has its Permanent Secretariat in Macau, highlighting that autonomy, giving a very positive image of Macau, a more sophisticated image than the one provided by the gaming industry.

In this context, the Macau Forum would only be able to bring the Portuguese-speaking countries and China to another level of economic cooperation if these countries were really interested in achieving that through the Forum. After spending so many months in those speaking with key people, including the focal points of the Forum, and closely observing the daily work of the Permanent Secretariat in Macau and its activities, such as the training programs to Portuguese-speaking officials, I must say that I am quite sceptical. China’s economic diplomacy will always favour bilateral channels and the Forum is not a priority, neither to the Lusophone politicians and businessmen, nor to the Macau government, much more concerned with the casino affairs.

3. The Brazil’s position about the Macau Forum is quite different from the others participants. Brazil openly favors the bilateral relationship with China, how do you analize this fact, taking in consideration the many possibilities of negotiation that is lost by not actively participating in the Forum? Is an important begining to highlight the critics about Brazil’s position in the Macau Forum, publishing this article in a brazilian magazine? How can the Macau Forum influence the bilateral relationship between these two countries? Is it positive or negative to them? 

My perception is that, in the beginning, the creation of the Forum had a negative impact in the bilateral relationship, as Brazil was not willing to give a bold support to a Chinese foreign policy instrument. Soon after, China adjusted to the Brazilian approach and bilateral relations grew stronger than ever. Brazil is the member of the Macau Forum that more openly accepts its irrelevance. I was always told by Brazilian diplomats (working in different missions/countries – so apparently this is a common view) that Itamaraty does not have the human resources to invest in all institutions in which Brazil has membership; that comparing to the BRICS or the G20, the Macau Forum is not important. I even heard a Brazilian diplomat saying this in front of a Chinese diplomat and representatives from other Lusophone countries… Thus, Brazil is not interested in investing in this Forum. This is a fact. My opinion… well, we cannot assume that Brazil is actually loosing many opportunities for not participating actively in the Forum. What is certain is that this opportunities cannot emerge without a strategic shift and specific training of Brazilian diplomats and officials on Macau and the Forum. My article can only inspire some curiosity on the subject; it was not my intention to do political recommendations.

4. Is it important that an alternate view on China – other than northern countries’ – is being published in southern countries like Brazil? Why?

I discussed that issue a lot during meetings at the United Nations Development Program and at the G-77, and with Southern countries’ representatives in missions to the UN, as well as in the IMF and the World Bank. At the time I was writing a report to the Europe-China Research and Advice Network, funded by the European External Action Service, on “China’s ‘South-South’ relations and the Global World Order. My last sentence in this report was: “In the end, instead of thinking in terms of North-South or South-South divide, we should be worried in bringing North and South to work together.” But yes, I argued that the emerging South, namely the BRICS, is attracted by China’s vision of a multi-polar world order and is staking a claim for a new order which they expect to shape, one that eschews the “universal” rules espoused by the North but which are now viewed with increasing skepticism. Southern countries do not see China as a rival but rather a partner within this framework, even if they suffer from Chinese competition at the economic level, as it is the case of Brazil. Part of the Chinese success has to do with the fact that China does not try to impose its political system, economic model, beliefs or culture to anywhere outside China. Southern countries as Brazil support the Chinese perception of the international system, contesting the hierarchy of power in the main political and economic forums, for instance within the UN system and in the World Trade Organization, clearly opposing Western dominance.

Read the article:

MENDES, Carmen Amado. Macau in China’s relations with the lusophone world. Rev. bras. polít. int.,  Brasília ,  v. 57, n. spe,   2014 .   Available from <http://www.scielo.br/article_plus.php?pid=S0034-73292014000300225&tlng=en&lng=en>. access on  18  Oct.  2014.  http://dx.doi.org/10.1590/0034-7329201400214.

Vanbasten Noronha  is member of the Program of Tutorial Education in International Relations at University of Brasília -PET-REL and of the International Relations Analysis Lab – LARI (vanbasten.rel@gmail.com )

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