An expert's point of view on a current event.
June 11, 2021, 9:17 a.m.
After more than a year of the pandemic, it is hard to overestimate the extent to which China has improved its standing in Latin America, both in terms of its public reputation and its influence with leaders and policymakers. Beijing's diplomatic triumph – as the provider of the majority of all vaccines administered in Latin America, where the pandemic is still raging and more than 1 million people have died from COVID-19 to date – is all the more remarkable given the obstacles China has faced.
First, Chinese diplomats in Latin America had to dispel persistent doubts about the origins of COVID-19, which sparked diplomatic tension after Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro suggested the pandemic could be the result of Chinese "chemical warfare". His son Eduardo, a powerful congressman, along with several cabinet members, insisted on labeling the coronavirus as "China virus" and former Brazilian Foreign Minister Ernesto Araújo often referred to COVID-19 as "comunavirus" to link the virus to communism. Sinophobia has now become a central element of the Brazilian nationalist discourse.
Second, the Chinese vaccines used in Latin America – Sinopharm, Sinovac-CoronaVac, and CanSino's Convidecia – have faced serious concerns from the start, compounded by a number of PR disasters, including the publication of Sinovac's widely divergent efficacy rates that are eroding could further public trust. In January, the Brazilian Butantane Institute found an efficacy rate of just 50 percent for Sinovac's Brazilian-made vaccine, which dampened the excitement about the vaccination. Bolsonaro took the opportunity to publicly mock its low effectiveness. In Chile, after growing public skepticism, the authorities recently had to actively dispel doubts about Sinovac's vaccine. Despite the comparatively high vaccination rates in Chile, the number of cases in the country has skyrocketed. In Peru, the Chinese vaccine manufacturer Sinopharm is embroiled in a political scandal known as “Vacunagate”, which involved offering the country's political elite shots from a separate supply in later test phases at the end of 2020.
However, none of this has diminished China's strategic advantage for one simple reason: it runs largely unhindered. This has enabled Beijing to present itself as Latin America's most trusted ally in difficult times when other powers failed to react. So far, the numbers are actually on Beijing's side. By mid-May, China had exported a total of more than 250 million cans, or 42 percent of its total production, while the United States had only exported 3 million cans, which is about 1 percent of its production. It has been noticed by observers in the region that more than half of China's total exports – about 165 million doses – were administered to Latin America. In Brazil, for example, the majority of all recordings made by the end of May were made with Chinese raw materials.
News that New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio planned to offer vaccinations to tourists caused additional outrage in Latin America. This meant that US authorities were offering the vaccine to Latin Americans rich enough to travel abroad, rather than sending residual doses to Latin American governments to vaccinate the most vulnerable. Several US states do not require residence documentation when administering vaccines. While in some cases this is to ensure that undocumented migrants are also vaccinated, the policy has the unintended effect of sparking a high-end vaccination tourism boom, affecting wealthy Latin Americans in particular.
Finally, the Biden government's relatively quick response to India's requests for help this spring – lifting a ban on exports of raw materials for vaccines, which it had not done for Latin American countries despite similar skyrocketing death rates – made the region feel like Washington was being over India India prefers Latin America because of its low geopolitical relevance. "Brazil lacks the same strategic importance," said Rubens Ricupero, Brazil's former ambassador to the US, in an interview with Valor Econômico, Brazil's largest business newspaper.
All of this has brought new political clout for China as it dramatically deepens its influence across the region, including under the governors in Argentina and Brazil, many of whom have approached Beijing directly. For example, at the end of May, the governor of Jujuy Province in Argentina announced negotiations to buy 1 million Sinopharm vaccines and bragged about "contacts we have in China".
Beijing is already using its new status as the most important vaccine supplier in Latin America to defend its interests in other areas, in particular to diplomatically isolate Taiwan. For example, Honduras and Paraguay have formal ties with Taiwan and have not received Chinese vaccines. The Honduran government recently said it would prefer to maintain diplomatic ties with Taiwan, but recognized the urgent need to get vaccines and put it in a "difficult position". The country's chief cabinet coordinator, the equivalent of a prime minister, told the Financial Times, "The Honduran people are starting to see China helping its allies and we are starting to wonder why ours is not helping us." Honduras, she is considering opening a trade office in China to facilitate vaccine acquisition. In Paraguay, where the health system has all but collapsed and the government has faced major protests, there is growing public pressure to cut ties with Taipei and recognize Beijing. In both cases, Taiwan shot back and accused China of making political gains by delivering vaccines.
China has also benefited in other areas. While Chinese diplomats often claim that their approach is unconditional, there is no doubt that the provision of vaccines has increased Chinese leverage. Bolsonaro's deliberations over a possible ban on tech company Huawei as a gesture to the United States have met with fierce public backlash, fearing the move might restrict access to Chinese vaccines.
Still, the US could regain some of the geopolitical leverage it lost last year. Because although Chile and Uruguay were able to administer more than 50 vaccinations per 100 inhabitants, the vast majority of Latin American countries are only at the beginning of their vaccination campaigns. Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia have given fewer than 10 syringes per 100 people. In Venezuela, less than 1 percent of the population has received a vaccine, a clear indication of how effective a massive US vaccine donation could be in the region. If Latin Americans had a choice between a Western vaccine or a Chinese-made vaccine, the vast majority would choose the former, given the much higher rates of effectiveness. The need for vaccinations is great in Latin America. As the number of cases declines worldwide, the region sees the opposite trend, particularly in Colombia, Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay. Nonetheless, cases have risen in Chile and Uruguay, which have used Chinese vaccines.
However, in order to do justice to the success of Chinese vaccine diplomacy, a novel US strategy in rhetoric and action is required. Given Latin America's reliance on Chinese vaccines, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken's recent indictment of Beijing's "conditional" vaccine diplomacy is remarkably counterproductive – especially since the United States has been unwilling to share significant amounts of vaccines with developing countries. Latin American governments simply cannot afford the luxury of refusing Chinese deliveries; Without Beijing's offerings, the death toll in the region would likely have been much higher. Latin American analysts and policymakers have long viewed the region as a battlefield in a new Cold War between Beijing and Washington, in which every step – including vaccines – will be made in the context of great power politics. To Latin American interlocutors, it seems insincere to deny this reality. At the same time, vaccine delivery should be about strengthening US-Latin American ties, rather than fighting China or spoiling its vaccines.
Second, the United States would have to drastically increase vaccine exports to make up for the lost ground. US President Joe Biden recently announced that the United States will donate millions of vaccines from its supply through the United Nations-sponsored COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access (COVAX) program. But initially only 6 million cans shipped by the US will go to South and Central America, with more to be promised later. That's tiny compared to what China has already delivered. China's ambassador to Brazil, Yang Wanming, commented: "Better than nothing."
It was reported this week that the Biden government will purchase an additional 500 million doses of the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine and donate it worldwide. But China's vaccine shipments alone will not be enough to address the shortcomings of US policy towards Latin America. Beijing has been eager to expand its influence for years as US foreign policy officials dropped it under their radar. With this in mind, China's successful vaccine diplomacy is not an outlier, but is in line with its past and future policies. Providing more vaccines will not be enough to respond to growing Chinese influence on its own – but it would be a necessary first step.