Page last updated at 09:16 GMT, Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Brazil seeks to expand its influence

By Robin Lustig
The World Tonight, Rio de Janeiro

Brazilian Army 20th Light Artillery Group
Brazil has not had a war with its neighbours in more than 140 years

What does a country like Brazil want with 36 brand new fighter aircraft, five new submarines, 50 helicopters, a range of new missiles and tanks, as well as state-of-the-art radar equipment?

What it wants, quite simply, is to be acknowledged as an undisputed regional superpower.

Brazil is by far the biggest country in South America by land mass, by population, and by economic strength - so military strength seems the obvious last piece of the jigsaw.

Plus the not irrelevant fact that Brazil has only recently discovered that it is sitting on vast amounts of unexploited off-shore oil reserves.

Secure borders

With nearly 150,000 sq km of territorial waters to patrol, you want a modern navy as well as a big one.

Col Pedro de Passoa
It is good if people think you are nice - but they must also think that you are capable of being bad
Colonel Pedro de Pessoa

As for the 17,000km of land borders, they need patrolling too, particularly in the vast Amazon region where drugs smugglers can take advantage of porous frontiers and illegal loggers can rip out timber.

In years to come, Brazil hopes to be able to exploit bio-pharmaceuticals from the Amazon's incomparable natural riches - another reason to ensure that the Amazon is secure.

The Brazilian foreign minister, Celso Amorim, told me in an interview here: "We have borders with 10 neighbours, and we have had no war with them for 140 years.

"How many other countries can say that?" (The last time Brazil went into combat was in Italy in 1944, on the side of the Allied forces).


Even the army officer who is in charge of training Brazil's peace-keeping forces argues the need for "hard power" as well as "soft power".

"It is good if people think you are nice," said Colonel Pedro de Pessoa, commander of the army's Peace Keeping Operations Training Centre. "But they must also think that you are capable of being bad."

Brazil leads the United Nations peace-keeping force in Haiti. It also participates in UN peace-keeping missions in central Africa, Cyprus, East Timor, Ivory Coast, Liberia and Western Sahara. This is a country that wants to take both "hard" and "soft" power seriously.

As for those 36 fighter aircraft, Defence Minister Nelson Jobim says he will be announcing within the next couple of weeks who will get the order.

The French Rafale, built by Dassault, seems to be the favourite, but Boeing's F-18 and the Swedish Griffin are also being considered.

If the foreign minister is right, Brazil has no intention of threatening anyone.

"It is in the Brazilian character to want to be friends with everyone," he told me.

But this is a country that firmly believes its hour has come. And it is determined to make sure that no one thinks it is too weak militarily to defend its interests.

The World Tonight is broadcast on Radio 4 at 2200 GMT, Monday to Friday or catch-up on BBC iPlayer

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