POINT OF VIEW: Vaccine diplomacy in Latin America and the Caribbean, a publicity stunt for China


By R. Evan Ellis

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The COVID-19 pandemic has created multiple opportunities for the People’s Republic of China to advance its business position and influence in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Most important, in the short term, has been China’s vaccine diplomacy. More than a million people in the region have died from COVID-19 since the virus was first detected in the region in February 2020. That death toll, according to the Pan American Health Organization, is d ‘about 75 percent more than in the United States, which has recorded a similar number of infections.

Additionally, while the United States has inoculated over 62% of its adult population, dramatically reducing infection rates and allowing it to begin to reopen its economy, an end to the struggle is nowhere in sight for Latin America, where variants of the virus are causing new waves of infection and forcing new economic closures in countries ranging from Colombia to Trinidad and Tobago.

Against the backdrop of the region’s urgent need for vaccines to fight the pandemic, a perfect storm of unintended effects from U.S. policy decisions, the dynamics of international vaccine contracts and prioritization, and the pursuit of strategic opportunities and trade by China, has given rise to a dangerous – albeit mistaken – perception that Beijing is coming to the region’s rescue with its vaccines while America focuses exclusively on its own people.

From the start of vaccine deployment, the United States pursued a strategy of meeting the needs of its own population through direct vaccine contracts with major pharmaceutical manufacturers, while contributing generously to the Covax initiative. from the World Health Organization to help other countries get the vaccine. they need. Covax, by design, deliberately emphasizes the identity of donors and focuses on equitable distribution of vaccines of demonstrated quality.

The US $ 4 billion commitment to Covax is far greater than that of any other donor or international group, including the European Union and the UK, and neither China nor Russia is even on the list.

Unfortunately, massive and urgent demand for vaccines, logistical difficulties and – ironically – the need for Western pharmaceutical companies to prioritize the contracts they had with the US government, have so far limited the number of vaccines reaching. the region thanks to the Covax effort. At the same time, the nature of Covax has suppressed the region’s understanding of the role of American generosity for the 76 million doses of Covax already distributed worldwide, according to the organization.

Meanwhile, driven in part by the need for ethnic diversity in vaccine testing, Chinese companies such as Sinovac and Sinopharm have conducted Phase II and III clinical trials in several Latin American countries, including Peru, Brazil and Argentina. This created the basis for the subsequent rapid certification and distribution of Chinese vaccines there.

Additionally, China’s relative control over COVID-19 in its country – unlike the dire situation in other countries – and the ability of Chinese companies to increase vaccine production, have paved the way for Beijing to expand. significantly exports its vaccines to countries in need. in Latin America and elsewhere. It currently supplies vaccines to at least 12 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean.

According to the Pan American Health Organization, at the end of May, vaccines made in China accounted for 82% of all doses administered in Chile, 86% in El Salvador and 32% in Peru.

The receipt in May of 1.3 million doses of Chinese vaccine by Venezuela, which already depends mainly on Chinese and Russian vaccines, also promises to deepen the Maduro regime’s dependence on China.

The Chinese government, with the collaboration of its Latin American partners, has extended the impact of its vaccine diplomacy by making each vaccine delivery a photo op, with boxes of Chinese vaccines emblazoned with Chinese brands unloaded from planes in front. assembled journalists, often with the president of the recipient country or other senior officials present.

Vaccine diplomacy highlights China’s readiness in a wide range of areas to capitalize on the region’s needs and hopes to advance its economic and other interests. Despite the impression often given by China, the majority of Chinese vaccines are sold to the region, not donated, unlike the generous contribution of US $ 4 billion to Covax, or to those of other developed countries in Europe. and Asia.

At the start of its vaccination campaign, China offered a billion dollar loan fund to facilitate Latin American purchases of Chinese-only vaccines, in the same way that its strategic banks offer loans that help Latin governments. Americans to buy Chinese products and services in other areas.

The nation has also used vaccine diplomacy to advance political and other strategic goals. Brazil and the Dominican Republic have both canceled previous commitments to exclude Chinese supplier Huawei from their countries’ 5G networks, after receiving Chinese commitments to deliver their vaccines.

The PRC has tried unsuccessfully to persuade the government of Mario Abdo Benitez in Paraguay to abandon its longtime ally Taiwan and diplomatically recognize the People’s Republic of China in exchange for vaccines. Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez has publicly pledged to open a trade office in China – the first step in changing his country’s diplomatic recognition of the nation – with the goal of obtaining the latter’s vaccines.

Such national compromises to obtain the necessary vaccines can have strategic implications. The inclusion of Chinese telecommunications equipment in the region’s 5G networks will likely make it difficult for the United States to provide sensitive intelligence and other information to partners who have licensed such equipment.

For companies seeking to avoid intellectual property theft by the Chinese government and its associates, given the potential risk of intellectual property theft associated with the use of untrusted networks, the presence of Huawei and other suppliers based in China. China can prevent investors from locating high value-added production. lines, research and headquarters facilities in these countries.

Driven by their need to bring the pandemic under control in their countries, the switch to Chinese-made vaccines not only changed the sovereign decisions of Latin American countries regarding key foreign policy decisions and critical telecommunications infrastructure, but had unintentional counterproductive side effects in their fight against the virus.

In Chile, studies have shown that the effectiveness of the first dose of the Sinovac two-dose vaccination schedule was as low as 3%, allowing the virus to continue to spread even as the government led the region in infection rates. vaccination, inoculating 94% of its population having received at least one dose by the end of May.

It is in the strategic interest of the United States to help our neighbors vaccinate their populations faster and more effectively, while more aggressively pushing back against the Chinese narrative that China is generously saving the region. The Biden administration’s donation to global partners of 60 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine and its commitment to make available up to 20 million doses of the Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines as excess production becomes available to consumers. United States in June is a step in the right direction. However, with these vaccines being sent overseas, Latin America and the Caribbean must be a priority destination, and America must do more to publicize its efforts.

As shown by the devastating effect of P1 and other Brazilian variants of COVID-19, controlling the virus in Latin America is also important to minimize the risk of the proliferation of mutations, especially given the high levels of movement of people. between the United States and the region for business, tourism and family reasons.

Controlling the pandemic in Latin America is also a fundamental prerequisite to alleviate pressures to migrate to the United States. It is also important to alleviate the socio-economic tensions that cause the region to lose confidence in the possibility of solving its problems through democratic and market-oriented approaches. Such a loss of confidence is the vehicle that brings anti-American populist leaders to power, whose regimes subsequently open the door to more threatening engagement by China and other outside actors.

Finally, the generosity and leadership of the United States in helping the region to vaccinate its populations arguably contradicts the rhetoric of our competitors on the negligence of the United States, while reinforcing the goodwill to work with the Americans in other critical areas, from cooperation on common security challenges to democracy, rule of law and respect. for human rights.

For these reasons, it is in America’s best interest to quickly implement and build on current government initiatives to make vaccines available to global partners beyond those provided by Covax. However, the nation must also go further and prioritize Latin America and the Caribbean to receive these vaccines.

When needed and agreed to by partner governments in the region, the United States should help provide logistical support for the delivery, distribution and storage of donated vaccines, possibly including assistance in providing them to local populations. .

In such efforts, the U.S. military – including the National Guard with its state partnership programs in the region – can have a valuable role to play. Likewise, the participation of international observers and non-governmental organizations will reduce the risk of vaccines being diverted or used inappropriately.

No other region is more directly linked to the security and prosperity of the United States than Latin America and the Caribbean. She is at a critical juncture with the pandemic and the vaccination. The initiative we take now through vaccines and other supports will be reflected for years to come in the extent to which our southern border connects us to opportunities or separates us from threats.

R. Evan Ellis is Professor and Researcher in Latin America at the Institute for Strategic Studies at the Army War College. The opinions expressed here are strictly hers.

The subjects: International


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