WASHINGTON – China is using Covid-19 vaccines to advance its political and trade agenda across Latin America and the Caribbean, and the United States risks losing influence in the region without prompt action, say lawmakers and experts.
China has sent more than 165 million doses of Chinese-made vaccine to Latin America and the Caribbean in recent months, accompanied by a concerted public relations campaign highlighting Beijing’s role.
The United States until recently focused on containing the coronavirus outbreak and has shipped few vaccines. President Joe Biden has pledged to donate 80 million doses, but his administration has yet to announce where it will send the vaccines overseas.
Members of Congress and regional experts say the administration needs to catch up with China and start sending vaccines to Latin America, and make sure the world knows the vaccines are coming from the United States.
Several Latin American countries, including Chile, El Salvador, Brazil and Uruguay, rely almost exclusively on vaccines made in China, according to data from the Pan American Health Organization. Russia has also sent a smaller number of vaccines to the region.
Honduras and Paraguay, however, face a vaccine shortage but have not received any Chinese-made doses. The two countries claim they were offered Chinese-made vaccines in exchange for severing diplomatic ties with Taiwan, which China insists is part of its territory.
“China has used this moment to build muscle in the region,” said Jason Marczak, director of the Latin American Center of the Atlantic Council think tank.
Although Beijing has been criticized for how it has handled the pandemic, which first emerged in China’s Wuhan province, China has worked to bring public attention to how it is helping others. countries to fight the virus.
“From a public relations perspective, China has sought to shift the discourse from China at the center of the Covid problem to China at the center of the Covid solution,” Marczak said.
A senior Honduran official, Carlos Alberto Madero, chief cabinet coordinator, recently said the need for vaccines put his country “in a very difficult situation” and he could not rule out severing ties with Taiwan.
“The Honduran people are starting to see China helping its allies and we are starting to wonder why ours are not helping us,” Madero told the Financial Times.
China has denied offering vaccines to countries in exchange for political favors. The Chinese Embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.
In addition to donating around 4 million doses to Canada and Mexico, officials in the Biden administration are still deliberating on which countries will receive the vaccines. Lawmakers and regional experts are pushing the White House to prioritize Latin America and the Caribbean, arguing the move is justified on both public health and strategic grounds.
“Without the commitment and leadership of the United States, our competitors will continue their efforts to use their less effective vaccines as leverage to force the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean to support a diplomatic program contrary to ours”, three senators Republican Marco Rubio and Democrats Bob Menendez and Tim Kaine said in a letter to Biden last week.
Lawmakers backed the argument at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing this month, saying the administration needs to set priorities and ensure donations have a clear “made-in” label. the-USA “.
“If you want to prioritize the whole globe, we might not have the kind of impact we want,” said Kaine, D-Va.
Gayle Smith, State Department coordinator for the global response to Covid-19, responded: “I can assure you that our hemisphere is receiving great attention.”
A State Department spokesperson told NBC News that the administration “will soon have more to say about the countries in which we distribute these vaccines.”
Biden’s promise to give 80 million doses to other countries far exceeds what other governments have promised. And Washington has committed $ 4 billion to support the international COVAX platform backed by the World Health Organization, which donates vaccines to countries in need.
“We will work with COVAX and other partners to ensure that safe and effective vaccines are delivered in a fair manner and in accordance with scientific and public health evidence,” said a spokesperson for the National Security Council.
“Above all, our photos do not come with conditions,” added the spokesperson. “We share vaccines with the world and lead the world in a global immunization strategy because it’s the right thing to do: the right thing morally, the right thing from a health perspective. global public policy, and good for our collective security and well-being. “
As for Honduras, the spokesperson said the country has received more COVAX vaccines than any other source and additional vaccines are expected to arrive through the COVAX platform in the coming weeks.
America’s vaccine donation pledges go way beyond anything China has promised.
In Latin America, Beijing mainly sells – and not donations – doses to countries in the region, according to R. Evan Ellis, professor-researcher in Latin American studies at the US Army War College Strategic Studies Institute.
Nonetheless, China has portrayed itself on social media and state media as helping Latin American countries as they face a deadly pandemic, Ellis said.
The US donations overshadow “what the Chinese have done, but the Chinese have turned every delivery on an airport tarmac into a photo op,” Ellis told the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission on Thursday.
“The president comes out and the boxes are displayed with Chinese flags on them. And so the Chinese unfortunately did a better job of marketing and did a much better job in the early stages to increase production levels,” he said. he declares.
“We cannot allow the Chinese Communist Party to take advantage of this pandemic to undermine our national security interests in Latin America and the Caribbean,” said Texas Representative Michael McCaul, a senior Republican on the affairs committee. foreigners in the House. “Countries like Honduras are under pressure to transfer diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China in order to receive much-needed vaccines from the CCP (Chinese Communist Party).”
Smith, Biden’s resource person in the global fight against Covid-19, described “vaccine diplomacy” by China and Russia as “rugged and cynical.” She said the administration should “make it clear that the United States views vaccines as tools to end a pandemic, not as tools to twist people’s arms or try to gain political influence.”
Earlier in the pandemic, China used “mask diplomacy” to boost its image in the region, publicizing the delivery of surgical masks and other medical supplies. Over the past decade, China has made major inroads into Latin American markets, overtaking the United States as the main trading partner of Brazil, Chile, Peru and Uruguay.
China has invested in ports, roads, dams and railways, often providing loans to Latin American governments, and has made large purchases of minerals and agricultural products. China has already used its economic might to position Huawei and other state-owned enterprises to play a key role in the region’s telecommunications and space sectors.
In the Caribbean, China has funded projects including government buildings, roads and cricket stadiums in Antigua, Jamaica, Grenada, St. Lucia and the small country of Dominica, and has invested billions in new ports and resorts.
Trade brought political benefits. Grenada and Dominica severed ties with Taiwan. In Latin America, Beijing has persuaded three countries to abandon their diplomatic recognition of Taiwan since 2017: Panama, the Dominican Republic and El Salvador. But countries that refused, like Paraguay, have been excluded from funding China’s public works and face trade barriers to exporting their agricultural products.
In addition to countering China, lawmakers and experts say the United States must send vaccines to a region where cases are on the rise, especially as 77% of all visitors this year to the United States. United came from Latin America and the Caribbean.
Covid-19 cases have risen sharply in Argentina and Colombia, where authorities have imposed lockdowns, and infections are also on the rise in the Caribbean states of Trinidad and Tobago and Haiti. Latin America and the Caribbean accounts for about a third of the global death toll from Covid-19.
With the availability of more US-made vaccines and declining domestic demand in the US, the Biden administration still has a chance to provide aid to Latin America and the Caribbean if it moves now, according to Marczak of the Atlantic Council.
“It’s not too late to make an impact. China has been leading the game of vaccine diplomacy in the region, but with the number of US vaccines coming online for distribution around the world, United States has an opportunity to regain the lead, ”he said.