China has once again come to the rescue of Latin American countries in their hour of need. In late 2020, the death toll was rising in Brazil, Ecuador, and Peru, as well as in other countries in the region. Europe and the United States had secured millions of vaccines, but these doses were not reaching Latin America. Here, China detected both a political and economic opportunity. Today, almost all Latin American countries are vaccinating their populations with Chinese vaccines, no questions asked.
A family member, friend, or even your child's teacher has probably already had their dose of Sinopharm or CoronaVac (Sinovac). However, the “vaccine diplomacy,” as experts have named this policy, is just the latest chapter in China's growing interest in the region. This can be seen in the recent emergence of the Latin American chapter of China's huge infrastructure and investment project known as the New Silk Road, which has been advancing over the last four years in the region, to the indifference of former U.S. President Donald Trump.
At first, Beijing extended its influence over Latin American raw materials. China subsequently began financing large infrastructure projects (mainly focused on energy) and, finally, it granted loans to countries that would otherwise not have been able to obtain financing in the international market.
Contenedores refrigerados con
1 000 000 de vacunas Sinovac en Hong Kong. Ya vienen volando. Mañana arribarán al Aeropuerto de la CDMX en la madrugada. Ese apoyo sí se ve!! pic.twitter.com/dwBSyD9PtS
— Marcelo Ebrard C. (@m_ebrard) March 25, 2021
Refrigerated containers with 1,000,000 Sinovac vaccines in Hong Kong. They are already on the way here. Tomorrow they will arrive at the CDMX Airport [in Mexico] in the early hours of the morning. China's support can be clearly seen here!
China was at first interested in the food products that it still purchases from Brazil and Argentina but later diversified its portfolio to other countries in the region such as Ecuador, where China financed large energy projects. Venezuela's anti-US stance has brought the country closer to China, which became its largest lender. As the old saying goes, the enemy of your enemy is your friend. Before the pandemic, China had already begun to build strong relationships with Mexico, Chile, and Peru—countries with large domestic markets—to invest in their service sectors.
“When you sit with a powerful nation such as China, it brings a huge investment portfolio to the table. In this context, vaccines are just another topic on the agenda,” says Federico Merke, Professor of International Relations at the University of San Andrés in Argentina. “China has a very strong presence in Latin America, which has been steadily growing over the last 10 years. Doing business with China brings both opportunity and risk. The opportunities include access to vaccines, but the risks involve associating yourself with a country that does not respect human rights, that does not care about protecting the environment and that has no qualms about accepting or paying bribes,” he added.
Federico Urdinez, an expert on China at the Catholic University of Chile, conducted a study in seven Latin American countries, asking participants about their perceptions of China. Those interviewed tended to give the same answer: coronavirus. Memories of the Wuhan market were clearly still fresh in the minds of many Latin Americans, who blamed China for the hardships that they were still suffering.
Urdinez concluded that initially, China's “mask diplomacy,” which involved donations of face masks that arrived in Latin America during the worst months of the pandemic, did not work. However, when the Catholic University of Chile repeated the study several months later, opinions changed. “The reputational damage that they had not been able to reverse with masks, they did with vaccines. China's public image has now improved among Latin Americans,” Urdinez explained.
These much-needed drugs arrived alongside a huge wave of investment that China had poured into Latin America. China's investments in the region had totalled $7 billion U.S. dollars between 1990 and 2009. However, this figure soared to $64 billion during the period 2010-2015, after China relaunched its Silk Road project which included a special interest in the region.
Brazil, the world's largest producer of soybeans, sold 80 per cent of its total production to China in 2019. On the other hand, Brazil handed over control of 13 commercial ports to Chinese investors and now plans to hand over another 15. Argentina also sells 80 per cent of its soybeans to China, while the Asian giant invests in hydrocarbons and grants the county loans to build trains and ports.
Tenemos un millón de dosis más, arribó a Ezeiza un vuelo de China con vacunas Sinopharm. Contamos con 6.8 millones, ya distribuimos 5.200.000.
Gracias a la tripulación de Aerolíneas Argentinas y a todos y todas los que trabajan para que lleguen a cada argentino, cada argentina. pic.twitter.com/FLdmNCwSry
— Carla Vizzotti (@carlavizzotti) April 2, 2021
We have another one million doses, a flight from China arrived at Ezeiza [airport in Argentina] carrying Sinopharm vaccines. We have 6.8 million, we have already distributed 5,200,000.
Thank you to the Aerolíneas Argentinas crew and to all those who work to ensure that these vaccines reach every Argentinean.
Chile's coastline in the Pacific Basin has enabled the country to sign a free trade agreement with China, which became one of Chile's main investors in energy and lithium. What's more, China is already Bolivia's leading creditor, while Venezuela received more from Beijing than any other country: payments exceeded $62 billion, according to data from the Inter-American Dialogue.
In any case, for now, China's vaccine diplomacy seems to be working. “In ten years’ time, we are all sure to remember who helped us during the coronavirus crisis. Was it Angela Merkel, Emmanuel Macron, or John [Joe] Biden? No. Only China helped Latin America and the countries in the region all began dancing to China's tune, not due to shared ideologies but due to the desire to resolve an unprecedented problem,” says Enrique Dussel Peters, coordinator of the Latin American Academic Network on China.
— Jair M. Bolsonaro (@jairbolsonaro) January 25, 2021
On the other hand, such soft-power diplomacy can also give China a political, as well as an economic payoff. After all, Brazil's Jair Bolsonaro, the Latin American president who had most resisted the onslaught of Chinese investment, backtracked on his plan to bar Huawei from the country's 5G network auctions. Such business is much coveted by the biggest players in the telecommunications market, and many countries have boycotted the Shenzhen-based firm. Bolsonaro's about-turn on Huawei occurred a few days after Brazil received the raw materials from China to manufacture the CoronaVac in Brazil.
Whether it is merely trade or geopolitical expansion, the desperation for vaccines and the absence of the United States in ensuring that doses reach poorer countries had created a window of opportunity for China to continue its expansion. China has been committed to Latin America for decades and is using vaccine diplomacy to strengthen its presence in the region. Everything seems to indicate that, after many years of cultivating its influence in Latin America, China now seems set to take on a leading role in the region.