For centuries, Latin America and the Caribbean have been the site of geopolitical power plays. The Covid-19 pandemic has made the region once again the stage for competition over the world’s leadership position – this time between China and the United States. This past year has opened up a new debate about how countries instrumentalize health assistance in so-called ‘vaccine diplomacy’. Accusing each other of prioritizing geopolitical interests over much needed solidarity in the present health crisis, both exclude from the debate those it should be about: the people affected.
From cause to rescue – China’s strategy to turn the tide
Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) has been the region most severely affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. In May 2021 the death toll surpassed 1 million people, accounting for 31% of global Covid-19 deaths, despite representing only 8.4% of the world’s population.
The outcry over China’s current involvement in the LAC region has been prominent on the political stage. However, China’s engagement comes as no surprise; during the last two decades, relations between LAC and China have been strengthening considerably. For China, the region is a source of primary resources, like ores, soybeans and oil, and a market for Chinese manufacturing exports. More importantly, it is a destination for Chinese investments, especially in infrastructure, such as energy systems, railways and ports – slowly incorporating the region into China’s BRI. Chinese investments of $US 7 billion between 1990 and 2009 soared to $US 64 billion between 2010 and 2015.
Recently, the conflict between Taiwan and China has moved to the centre of the debate. Most of the 14 countries that have diplomatic relations with Taiwan are LAC countries. However, to gain access to vaccines, the Honduran and Paraguayan governments have considered changing relations with Taiwan and strengthening their cooperation with China. In response, Taiwan’s Foreign Minister accused China of using “[these kind of] partnership to lure or pressure those allies of Taiwan and the U.S. to lean toward Beijing”.
Claiming moral superiority – who is the real generous superpower?
Condemning China’s ‘vaccine diplomacy’ and increasing influence in the region, the US has now planned to donate millions of vaccine doses to the region. Regardless of who wins ‘the race’, one thing is sure: the distribution of vaccines will be political.
Much of the anglophone media presents China as the culprit while calling for ‘real’ aid from the US for the “overall interest of humanity”. However, proposing the possibility for moral superiority from the US is highly questionable given the country’s history of past intervention in LAC, domestic human rights abuses, and now, nationalism blocking vaccine assistance to other countries. All foreign aid has strings attached, some are just more visible than others.
The US strategy with the motto #americaacts may just be the equivalent to China’s attempt to promote itself as a generous superpower. Pepe Zhang of the Atlantic Council concluded: “Increasingly, the region is caught up more and more in this geo-political climate where everything is characterized by US-China tension”.
Shouldn’t vaccines be about saving lives?
In this discussion the heart of the debate has been lost: how can health services be secured for the people in the region? As for now, Latin America cannot afford to not engage with China. But the idea that either one of the self-proclaimed superpowers needs to be the knight in shining armour is uninformed and misguided
The pandemic has forced the countries to focus inward. The closure of physical borders has brought up the risk of economic, strategic, and scientific isolation. Vaccines should be about saving lives, not about political influence. Facing a future of pandemic-perpetuated neo-colonialism, strong ties and cooperation within the region and working towards financial independence will be fundamental to avoid being the continuous site of global power plays.