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Vaccine Diplomacy Boosts China’s Standing in Latin America

Beijing has increased its leverage in the region—but Washington can still stage a comeback.

By , an associate professor of international relations at the Getulio Vargas Foundation in São Paulo.
Employees work on the production line of CoronaVac, Sinovac Biotech's vaccine against COVID-19 coronavirus at the Butantan biomedical production center, in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on Jan. 14.
Employees work on the production line of CoronaVac, Sinovac’s vaccine against COVID-19, at the Butantan Institute in São Paulo, Brazil, on Jan. 14. Nelson Almeida/AFP/Getty Images

More than one year into the pandemic, it is hard to overstate how much China has improved its standing in Latin America in terms of both its reputation among the general public 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 of COVID-19 so far—is all the more remarkable given the obstacles China faced along the way.

First, Chinese diplomats had to address lingering doubts in Latin America about the origins of COVID-19, which led to diplomatic tensions after Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro suggested the pandemic may be the result of Chinese “chemical warfare.” His son Eduardo, a powerful congressman, along with several cabinet members, insisted on calling the coronavirus the “China virus,” and former Brazilian Foreign Minister Ernesto Araújo often referred to COVID-19 as the “comunavirus” in an attempt to link the virus to communism. Sinophobia has now become a key element of Brazilian nationalist discourse.

Second, the Chinese vaccines utilized in Latin America—Sinopharm, Sinovac-CoronaVac, and CanSino’s Convidecia—have faced serious concerns from the start, aggravated by a series of public relations disasters, including the publication of Sinovac’s wildly diverging efficacy rates, which risked eroding public confidence further. In January, Brazil’s Butantan Institute found a mere 50 percent efficacy rate for Sinovac’s vaccine when produced in Brazil, dampening excitement about vaccination. Bolsonaro took the opportunity to publicly deride the low efficacy. In Chile, authorities have recently had to actively quell doubts about Sinovac’s vaccine after growing public skepticism. Despite Chile’s comparatively high vaccination rates, the country’s case counts have skyrocketed. Meanwhile, in Peru, the Chinese vaccine producer Sinopharm is involved in a political scandal—known as “Vacunagate”—that involved allegedly offering shots from a separate stockpile to the country’s political elite in late 2020 during later phases of testing.

None of this has dampened China’s strategic advantage for a simple reason: It has been running largely unopposed.

Yet none of this has dampened China’s strategic advantage for a simple reason: It has been running largely unopposed. This has allowed Beijing to project itself as Latin America’s most trusted ally in times of hardship, when other powers failed to respond. So far, the numbers are indeed on Beijing’s side. By mid-May, China had exported more than 250 million doses overall, or 42 percent of its total production, while the United States had only exported 3 million doses, about 1 percent of its production. It has not been lost on observers in the region that more than half of China’s total exports—roughly 165 million doses—have been administered in Latin America. In Brazil, for example, the majority of all shots given by late May were made with Chinese raw materials.

News that the mayor of New York City, Bill de Blasio, planned to offer vaccinations to tourists caused additional outrage in Latin America. This translated as U.S. authorities offering the vaccine to Latin Americans rich enough to travel abroad rather than sending leftover doses to Latin American governments to vaccinate the most vulnerable. Several U.S. states do not require residency documentation when administering vaccines. Although in some cases this is meant to ensure undocumented migrants will also be vaccinated, the policy has had the unintended effect of creating a high-end vaccine tourism boom, in particular involving affluent Latin Americans.

Finally, the Biden administration’s relatively quick response to India’s requests for help this spring—lifting an export ban of raw materials for vaccines, which it had not done for Latin American countries despite similarly skyrocketing death rates—created the perception in the region that Washington was giving preference to India over Latin America due to the latter’s limited geopolitical relevance. “Brazil lacks the same strategic importance,” said Rubens Ricupero, Brazil’s former ambassador to the United States, in an interview with Valor Econômico, Brazil’s biggest business daily.

All this has given China newfound political leverage as it dramatically deepens its influence across the region, including among governors in Argentina and Brazil, many of whom have reached out directly to Beijing. In late May, for example, the governor of Jujuy province in Argentina announced negotiations were underway to purchase 1 million Sinopharm vaccines, boasting about “contacts we have in China.”

Beijing is already using its new status as Latin America’s main vaccine provider to defend its interests in other areas, notably its ongoing drive to isolate Taiwan diplomatically. Honduras and Paraguay, for example, maintain formal ties with Taiwan and have received no Chinese vaccines. The Honduran government recently said it would prefer to maintain its diplomatic relationship with Taiwan, yet recognized the urgent need to obtain vaccines put it into a “difficult situation.” The country’s chief cabinet co-coordinator, the equivalent of a prime minister, told the Financial Times: “The Honduran people start to see that China is helping its allies, and we start to ask ourselves why ours are not helping us.” In May, Honduras’s government said it was considering opening a trade office in China to facilitate acquiring vaccines. In Paraguay, where the health system has all but collapsed and the government has faced large protests, public pressure is growing to cut ties to Taipei and recognize Beijing. In both cases, Taiwan has fired back, accusing China of seeking political gain through vaccine delivery.

In other areas too, China has benefited. Although Chinese diplomats often claim their approach is not tied to conditions, there is no doubt vaccine delivery has increased Chinese leverage. Bolsonaro’s musings about possibly banning tech company Huawei as a gesture to the United States were met with fierce public backlash out of fear the move could limit access to Chinese vaccines.

Yet the United States could still regain some of the geopolitical influence it lost over the past year. After all, although Chile and Uruguay have been able to administer more than 50 shots per 100 people, the vast majority of Latin American countries are only just beginning their vaccination campaigns. Peru, Ecuador, and Bolivia have administered fewer than 10 shots per 100 people. In Venezuela, less than 1 percent of the population has received a vaccine, a clear indication of how impactful a massive U.S. vaccine donation could be in the region. If Latin Americans had the choice between a Western- and a Chinese-made vaccine, the vast majority would opt for the former, given much higher efficacy rates. In Latin America, the need to vaccinate is dire. As case counts recede worldwide, the region is seeing the opposite trend, notably in Colombia, Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Paraguay, and Uruguay. In Chile and Uruguay, which have deployed Chinese vaccines, cases have risen nonetheless.

However, matching the success of China’s vaccine diplomacy will require a novel U.S. strategy in rhetoric and action. Given Latin America’s dependence on Chinese vaccines, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s recent denunciation of Beijing’s “strings attached” vaccine diplomacy is remarkably counterproductive—particularly since the United States has been unwilling to share significant amounts of vaccines with developing countries. Latin American governments simply do not have the luxury of rejecting Chinese supplies; the region’s death toll would likely have been far higher had it not been for Beijing’s offers. Latin American analysts and policymakers have long seen the region as a battlefield in a new Cold War between Beijing and Washington, where every move—including in the realm of vaccines—will occur in the context of great-power politics. To Latin American interlocutors, denying this reality comes across as insincere. At the same time, delivering vaccines should be about strengthening U.S.-Latin American ties, not fighting China or badmouthing its vaccines.

Secondly, the United States would have to dramatically increase vaccine exports to make up for lost ground. U.S. President Joe Biden recently announced the United States would donate millions of vaccines from its supply through the United Nations-backed COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access (COVAX) program. But initially, only 6 million U.S.-supplied doses will go to South and Central America, with more promised later on. This is miniscule compared to what China has already supplied. China’s ambassador in Brazil, Yang Wanming, commented: “Better than nothing.”

It was reported this week the Biden administration will additionally purchase 500 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine and donate them worldwide. But matching China’s vaccine deliveries alone will not be enough to address the deficiencies of U.S. policy toward Latin America. Beijing has been diligently deepening its influence for years as U.S. foreign policymakers let it fall below their radar. Against this background, China’s successful vaccine diplomacy is not an outlier but very much in line with its past and future policies. Providing more vaccines will not be enough to single-handedly respond to growing Chinese influence—but it would be a necessary first step.

Oliver Stuenkel is an associate professor of international relations at the Getulio Vargas Foundation in São Paulo. Twitter: @OliverStuenkel