Victor Idrogo / Banco Mundial, Flickr

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. 

Most western countries have taken nationalist strategies to combat the pandemic, leaving the rest of the world without access to medical supplies and vaccines. The United States initially suspended all exports of medical supplies and has since been accused of ‘vaccine nationalism’. Meanwhile, China has taken the opportunity to change its reputation from being responsible for the pandemic, to being a reliable partner and a ‘responsible great power’ in the fight against it. 

In doing so, China has shifted the focus of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) from building a ‘community of common human destiny’ to building a ‘community of common health for mankind’, declaring Chinese vaccines a global public good. Since March 2020, Chinese private and public actors have almost continuously provided LAC with medical supplies and services. So far, China has supplied the majority of the vaccines to the region. 

But one should not look uncritically at China’s loose understanding of ‘aid’. Although China did donate some medical supplies and vaccines to LAC, most of the supplies were bought  by local governments. For the public, realising the nature of this ‘aid’ posed a challenge; deliveries for donation and purchase arrived on the same planes and were received by high ranking diplomats with high profile media coverage.

Minister Secretary General of Government, Jaime Bellolio; Minister of Transport, Gloria Hutt, Undersecretary of Public Health, Paula Daza and Undersecretary of Assistance Networks, Alberto Dougnac receiving Chile’s fourth delivery of 2 million doses of Chinese Sinovac vaccines on February 26, 2021 (Photo: Mediabanco Agencia, Flickr).

China’s Health Silk Road in Latin America 

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.

Although the health sector played a minor role in China’s previous strategic plans, the health-cooperation with LAC during the Covid-19 pandemic is nothing new. In 2015, China declared its commitment to establish the so-called Health Silk Road, committing to “stand ready to provide assistance within its capacity for the prevention and control of sudden outbreak of infectious diseases”.

Thus, what media and analysts call ‘vaccine diplomacy’ is just the latest chapter of China’s growing interest in expanding the BRI in the region. Overnight, health became a key subject of the BRI, which redirected the focus of its narrative and  turned the BRI’s extensive infrastructural network in the region into “a corridor for life-saving supplies”. Out of the 65 countries that have received Chinese vaccines, 63 were already part of the BRI

In addition to providing access to medical supplies, China also promised LAC countries financial aid, committing a loan of US$1 billion toward purchasing vaccinesChinese vaccines that is. These kinds of loans have been prominent tools in the last decade of Chinese-LAC cooperation. Most investments and loans for  infrastructure projects come with the obligation to contract Chinese enterprises, so that the immediate economic gains are instantly redirected to its country of origin. 

It all comes at a price

China has been heavily criticised for its ‘health diplomacy’ and the abuse of soft power resulting from its increasing presence in the region. For instance, it allegedly swayed Brazil into allowing Huawei to participate in the country’s 5G rollout after its initial ban from participation in exchange for vaccines and even reversed the Colombian government’s critical stance towards China’s human rights violations

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”. 

Taiwan’s president Tsai and Paraguay’s former president Horacio Cartes at the festivities to commemorate the 60th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Taiwan and Paraguay in 2017 (Photo: Taiwan Presidential Office, Flickr).

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. 

Supporting the vaccination of the LAC is not just a selfless act by the US government. Rather, it is a political move to reassert leadership in its ‘backyard.’ Doing so helps to regularize and rationalize immigration flows, and spur broad-based, investment-led economic growth, etc. For instance, the Biden administration’s plan to send millions of doses to Mexico conveniently coincided with it quietly pressing Mexico to curb the stream of migrants coming to the border.

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”.

Under the motto #americaacts, the US aid agency USAID promotes the country as reliable leader of health assistance in the fight against the global Covdi-19 pandemic (Source: USAID U.S. Agency for International Development, Flickr).

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

Better cooperation between LAC governments could help the region avoid being the site of international power plays. However, experts argue that the region has never been less united than now, being unable to find common strategies. 

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. 

Sophie Scherger