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Opinion The United States can’t ignore China’s vaccine diplomacy in Latin America

A health-care worker prepares a Sinovac coronavirus vaccine in front of a panel of origami lotus flowers at a clinic in Brasilia on March 29. Organizers said that the flower panel was arranged in honor of victims of the pandemic and also as a gesture of gratitude to health professionals and of hope to those who were being vaccinated.
A health-care worker prepares a Sinovac coronavirus vaccine in front of a panel of origami lotus flowers at a clinic in Brasilia on March 29. Organizers said that the flower panel was arranged in honor of victims of the pandemic and also as a gesture of gratitude to health professionals and of hope to those who were being vaccinated. (Eraldo Peres/AP)
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China has abused its power at every stage of the covid-19 pandemic to bully countries and advance its interests — and Beijing is now using vaccine supplies to pressure governments across the Western Hemisphere. The Biden administration ignores China’s pernicious vaccine diplomacy in our neighborhood at the peril of the safety and security of the entire region.

Beijing’s use of the pandemic to push its economic expansion and enforce the Chinese Communist Party’s political agenda is not new. At the start of the crisis, China dangled medical equipment over the heads of governments in exchange for concessions or as punishment for transgressions. The Chinese government even threatened the U.S. government that it would withhold crucial supplies if the Trump administration didn’t shut up about China’s early mishandling of the outbreak.

Now, one year later, Beijing is using vaccines as leverage around the world — especially in Latin America, where the virus is raging and fragile governments are struggling to tamp down public unrest.

“Covid was like a perfect storm on the hemisphere,” Navy Adm. Craig S. Faller, the head of U.S. Southern Command, testified last month. “And more needs to be done. This has opened a door for China and Russia to a lesser extent. We see it in their . . . heavy-handed vaccine diplomacy.”

In Paraguay, the government is under intense political pressure to drop its diplomatic recognition of Taiwan, Beijing’s price for providing shots. Latin American countries that recently dumped Taiwan are already getting deliveries. The Brazilian government is rescinding its rejection of Chinese telecom giant Huawei as part of its pitch to Beijing for vaccine help. Faller called for a “whole of government effort” to help Latin American countries resist these moves once Americans are vaccinated.

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“We’re seeing it play out,” he said. “We need to stay on the field.”

Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.) told me that nine Latin American countries are buying or contracting with China for vaccines, even though we know that the Sinovac version (one of China’s most exported vaccines) is barely 50 percent effective. Absent a more robust U.S. response, Beijing’s “highly aggressive and ham-fisted diplomacy” will result in long-term hazards for the region and U.S. interests there, he said.

“The Chinese are trying to show Western Hemisphere states that they can be a good economic, public health and diplomatic partner,” Coons said. “We need to get a clear plan and get moving with it.”

The Biden administration is taking a seemingly sensible approach: Vaccinate Americans first, while financially contributing to international distribution efforts such as the United Nations-backed Covax program, which are ramping up but still leaving billions of people in danger. The administration is also working on a plan to export more shots once an expected U.S. surplus materializes. A senior State Department official told me that the United States doesn’t want to play politics with vaccines, choosing winners and losers the way China does.

“It is our very strong view that the purpose of deploying vaccines needs to be shortening the life span of the pandemic,” the official said.

Another senior administration official noted that Beijing’s promises of hundreds of millions of shots for the region are already falling short and predicted that China’s bullying and bribing over vaccines will backfire.

“The countries of the Americas are not dumb, they know they are being leveraged,” the official said. “And when the Americans come in, they will recognize who their friends are.”

Regional experts warn against such optimism, noting that facts on the ground are changing in China’s favor in ways that can’t be undone. If Paraguay switches its recognition from Taipei to Beijing, for example, there’s no going back. Also, China is winning hearts and minds all over the Western Hemisphere now, regardless of whether its promises are later fulfilled.

“The United States has long had a blind spot in recognizing the significant risk of letting China and also Russia take the high ground in the Western Hemisphere,” said Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Council of the Americas and the Americas Society. “In the public mind, the impression has developed that China is going to come and rescue the region, while we in the United States have been seen as preoccupied with our needs.”

China’s encroachment in Latin America is damaging because Beijing’s mercantilist strategy and rising influence there undermine U.S. and international efforts to promote the region’s progress toward democracy, good governance and the rule of law. But Latin American countries will continue to seek Chinese trade and investment — and vaccines — as long as they are offered no good alternative.

Even while we prioritize vaccinating those in the United States, there are things we can do now. The U.S. program to loan surplus vaccines to Mexico and Canada, to be repaid later, could be expanded to other Western Hemisphere friends. The Biden administration could announce commitments to these countries in advance to relieve China’s pressure on their governments.

We may wish for a world where our pandemic response is separate and apart from our strategic interests, but that’s not the world we live in. China is using vaccines to expand its power and influence in our backyard. If we’re not in that game, we’ve already lost.

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