China is using Covid-19 vaccine to flex its muscles in America's backyard, experts say

WASHINGTON – China is using Covid-19 vaccines to advance its political and trade agenda in Latin America and the Caribbean, and the US is at risk of losing influence in the region without immediate action, lawmakers and experts say.

China has sent more than 165 million Chinese-made vaccine doses to Latin America and the Caribbean in the past few months, accompanied by a concerted public relations campaign highlighting Beijing’s role.

The United States, until recently, has focused on getting the coronavirus outbreak under control and has shipped few vaccines. President Joe Biden has promised to give away 80 million doses, but his administration has not yet announced where it will send vaccines overseas.

Members of Congress and regional experts say the government needs to catch up with China and bring vaccines to Latin America and make sure the world knows that the vaccines are from the US.

Several Latin American countries, including Chile, El Salvador, Brazil, and Uruguay, rely almost entirely on vaccines made in China, according to the Pan American Health Organization. Russia has also sent fewer vaccines to the region.

However, Honduras and Paraguay face vaccine shortages but have not received any Chinese-made doses. Both countries say In exchange for the dismantling of diplomatic ties with Taiwan, which China designates as part of its territory, they were offered vaccines made in China.

“China used this moment to flex its muscles in the region,” said Jason Marczak, director of the Latin American Center in the Atlantic Council think tank.

Although Beijing has been criticized for how it dealt with the pandemic that first emerged in China’s Wuhan Province, China has worked to draw public attention to how it is helping other countries fight the virus.

“From a public relations perspective, China has tried to move the narrative 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 is putting his country “in a very difficult position” and he cannot rule out breaking ties with Taiwan.

“The Honduran people are beginning to realize that China is helping its allies and we 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.

Aside from donating about 4 million doses to Canada and Mexico, Biden government officials are still debating which countries will receive vaccines. Legislators and regional experts are urging the White House to prioritize Latin America and the Caribbean, arguing the move is justified on both public health and strategic grounds.

Brazilian Health Minister Eduardo Pazuello (C) arrives during a press conference at the Ministry of Health’s distribution center in Sao Paulo on January 18, 2021 as doses of the Chinese CoronaVac vaccine arrive.Miguel Schincariol / AFP via the Getty Images file

“Without US engagement and leadership, our competitors will continue their efforts to use their less potent vaccines as leverage to force Latin America and the Caribbean to support a diplomatic agenda hostile to ours,” said the three Republican senators Marco Rubio and Democrats Bob Menendez and Tim Kaine, said in a letter to President Biden last week.

Legislators took the argument at a Senate Foreign Relations committee hearing earlier this month, saying the government needs to prioritize and ensure donations have a clear “Made in the USA” label.

“If you want to prioritize the entire globe, we may not get the effect we want,” said Sen. Kaine of Virginia.

Gayle Smith, Department of State Coordinator for the Global COVID-19 Response, replied, “I can assure you that a lot of attention is being paid to our hemisphere.”

A State Department spokesman told NBC News that the government “will have more to say about which countries we are about to distribute these vaccines to.”

President Biden’s promise to give 80 million cans to other countries far exceeds what other governments have promised. And Washington has allocated $ 4 billion to support the international COVAX platform, backed by the World Health Organization, which donates vaccines to countries in need.

Workers transport boxes of Chinese vaccines in Brasilia, Brazil, Jan. 18, 2021.Xinhua News Agency / Getty Images

“We will work with COVAX and other partners to ensure that safe and effective vaccines are delivered in a manner that is fair and consistent with scientific and health data,” said a spokesman for the National Security Council.

“It is important that our recordings are not tied,” added the spokesman. “We share vaccines with the world and lead the world in a global vaccination strategy because it is the right thing: the right thing morally, the right thing from a global public health perspective, and the right thing for our collective security and well-being.” Be.”

Turning to Honduras, the spokesman said the country had received more vaccines from COVAX than any other source and that additional vaccines would be arriving through the COVAX platform in the coming weeks.

America’s vaccine donation commitments go well beyond what China has promised.

In Latin America, Beijing mainly sells cans to countries in the region – rather than donating them – according to R. Evan Ellis, research professor of Latin American studies at the US Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute.

Still, China has portrayed itself on social media and state media as helping Latin American countries facing a deadly pandemic, Ellis said.

China is using Covid-19 vaccine to flex its muscles in America's backyard, experts say 1

US donations “obscure 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 with Chinese flags roll out. And so unfortunately the Chinese did better job marketing and a much better job in the early stages of raising production levels,” he said.

“We cannot allow the Chinese Communist Party to use this pandemic to undermine our national security interests in Latin America and the Caribbean,” said Rep. Michael McCaul, senior Republican on the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. “Countries like Honduras are under pressure to move diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China in order to get much-needed vaccines from the Chinese Communist Party.”

Smith, Biden’s main figure in the global fight against Covid-19, described the “vaccine diplomacy” of China and Russia as “robust and cynical”. She said the government “needs to make it clear that the United States views vaccines as a means to end a pandemic, not a means to twist people’s arms or gain political influence.”

At the beginning of the pandemic, China used “mask diplomacy” to raise its profile in the region and promote the delivery of surgical masks and other medical supplies. In the past decade, China has made great strides in Latin American markets, surpassing the US as the largest trading partner for Brazil, Chile, Peru and Uruguay.

China has invested in ports, roads, dams, and railways, frequently lending Latin American governments, and making large purchases of minerals and agricultural commodities. China has already used its economic power to position Huawei and other state-owned companies to play a key role in the region’s telecommunications and space sectors.

In the Caribbean, China has funded projects such as government buildings, roads, and cricket stadiums in Antigua, Jamaica, Grenada, St. Lucia, and the tiny country of Dominica, and has invested billions in new ports and resorts.

A general view of Australia playing England on April 8, 2007 at Sir Vivian Richards Stadium in St. John’s, Antigua and Barbuda. Most of the funds for the construction of the cricket stadium came from a grant from the Chinese government.Hamish Blair / Getty Images File

Trade has brought political advantages. Grenada and Dominica have severed ties with Taiwan. In Latin America, Beijing persuaded three countries to give up diplomatic recognition of Taiwan since 2017: Panama, the Dominican Republic and El Salvador. But countries like Paraguay that have refused to participate have been excluded from China’s public works funding and are facing trade barriers to exporting their agricultural products.

Aside from fighting China, lawmakers and experts say the United States needs to send vaccines to a region where cases are increasing, especially given 77 percent of all cases Visitor This year trips to the US came from Latin America and the Caribbean.

Covid-19 cases have risen sharply in Argentina and Colombia, where authorities have imposed bans, and infections are also rising in the Caribbean states of Trinidad, Tobago and Haiti. Latin America and the Caribbean account for around a third of the world’s death toll from Covid-19.

Given the increasing availability of US-made vaccines and declining domestic demand in the US, the Biden government still has the ability 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 a difference. China has been a leader in vaccine diplomacy in the region, but with the number of US vaccines slated to go online, the US has an opportunity to regain the effect.” lead, “he said.

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