Photo Credit: Norberto Duarte, AFP
Only four months into 2021, China is the leading exporter of COVID-19 vaccines, largely sending doses to the same developing countries prioritized by the COVAX program. Due to this dominant role in vaccine distribution, the ambition and capability of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to affect the political affairs of nations across Latin America and the Caribbean has only grown. Recent events in Guyana and Paraguay show that COVID-19 vaccines have influenced governments, either directly or indirectly, toward Beijing’s political preferences. For Latin American and Caribbean countries looking to resist Chinese political pressure, it will be essential for nations across the hemisphere—especially the United States—to act quickly and cooperate in ways that can limit the influence of the PRC.
Domestic politics in Paraguay have positioned the South American nation to be particularly vulnerable to international manipulation through vaccine diplomacy. Struggles over a lack of vaccine supply have become inescapable in the country, with the Congress of Paraguay even considering impeaching President Mario Abdo Benítez this past March over his administration’s mismanagement of the health crisis. Though impeachment proceedings were ultimately rejected, President Abdo Benítez’s administration remained under scrutiny, with opposition leaders continuing to warn that they would “be attentively watching what the government does.”
Recognizing Abdo Benítez’s need to respond to such political threats, Chinese actors likely saw an opportunity to exploit the administration’s shortcomings. On March 24, Bloomberg reported a startling revelation: anonymous persons affiliated with the PRC had suggested to Paraguayan officials that they would have to flip their diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing in order to purchase any PRC-produced shots.
Given the political pressure on the Paraguayan government, Taiwan and the U.S. took steps to prepare for, and quickly respond to, an incipient political crisis. Before China’s reported offer was made public, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken phoned President Abdo Benítez, stressing “the importance of continuing to work with democratic regional and global partners, including Taiwan, to overcome this global pandemic, combat corruption, and increase transparency and accountability.” The day after news broke, the Taiwanese ambassador reaffirmed his country’s commitment to helping Paraguay obtain COVID-19 vaccines, stating that Taiwan “opposes taking advantage of vaccines as a political condition.”
Following the PRC’s offer, Taiwan continued to provide Paraguay with funds, equipment, and diplomatic support to help acquire and distribute vaccines. These efforts have already yielded some success, as diplomatic engagement by the U.S. and Taiwan have helped Paraguay acquire at least 100,000 vaccine doses. Hasty and immediate international cooperation yielded a successful resolution—at least for now—for those in Paraguay, Taiwan, and the U.S. hoping to prevent another Latin American nation switching its diplomatic allegiance to the PRC.
In contrast, Guyana illustrates what can go wrong when an uncoordinated pandemic response is combined with minimal international cooperation and support. On February 3, the U.S. Embassy in Georgetown applauded an agreement between Guyana and Taiwan; the agreement would permit Taiwan to establish a trade and investment office in Guyana. Had the agreement been sustained, it also could have been a boon to Guyana as it further develops its fledgling oil industry, and benefitted Guyana’s Caribbean neighbors (since a Taiwanese mission near the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) headquarters in Georgetown would have further cemented Taiwan’s political and economic ties to the region). Unfortunately for Guyana, Taiwan, and the broader Caribbean, however, such mutual benefits would not be realized. Once the news of the Guyanese-Taiwanese agreement emerged, it was swiftly criticized by the PRC, despite the existence of seven similar offices in the region. Conversely, the U.S. and Guyana’s regional allies offered little public diplomatic or material support to Guyanese President Irfaan Ali’s efforts to deepen ties with a fellow democracy.
While the PRC declined to make any public threats against Guyana, Georgetown received 20,000 doses of the Sinopharm vaccine less than a month later. By mid-March, Chinese President Xi Jinping had also called the Guyanese president, promising further cooperation on economic and pandemic-related matters. In return, President Ali reaffirmed that “Guyana firmly abides by the one-China principle, regards China as the most important cooperative partner in its national development, and is committed to strengthening relations between the two parties and two countries.”
Although Guyana never announced that it had formally annulled its deal with Taipei in exchange for life-saving vaccines, it is unlikely that the PRC would export 20,000 doses of vaccine if the two countries were quarreling over Taiwan. With little international support from its regional allies, China’s position as a provider of vaccines, development aid, and diplomatic attention snuffed out Georgetown’s nascent relationship with Taipei.
It is not only small countries like Paraguay and Guyana that are at risk of undue political influence from China’s vaccine diplomacy. Colombia, one of Latin America’s largest countries by population, Gross Domestic Product (GDP), and physical size, was applauding China’s human rights record before the United Nations Human Rights Council a week after it received half a million doses of the SinoVac shot. Though this may not have been explicitly related to vaccines, it appears likely that Colombia—which until recently had relatively weak relations with the PRC—knew that deferring to China’s political mantras represented its best option to weather the pandemic.
In the coming months, with limited supplies available and only a few wealthier countries, like the U.S. and the UK producing vaccines, there may be little that most Latin American and Caribbean countries can do to help themselves and their neighbors ward off undue influence by China. That said, efforts to share vaccines—like those undertaken by CARICOM countries to distribute donations from India, or Chile to donate some of its Chinese-made doses to Paraguay and Ecuador—may help relieve some pressure to embrace China’s undemocratic political preferences. While there certainly are limits to what these efforts can accomplish, the varied responses from Guyana and Paraguay to Chinese engagement underscore how regional cooperation and support can counteract potentially dubious foreign actions.
Ethan Knecht is a Program Administrator and Deputy Director at International Business-Government Counsellors. He is a graduate of Georgetown University, and he formerly worked at the Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies and the Inter-American Dialogue.