Paraguay’s foreign ministry said this week it had been approached by brokers claiming to offer batches of Chinese-made COVID-19 vaccine in exchange for the country cutting its diplomatic ties with Taiwan.
The ministry said in a statement the “intermediaries and other private figures” who offered the deal “had no official status, and their legitimacy or links with the government of the People’s Republic of China has not been proved.”
The Chinese government has denied a role in the alleged deal, which would represent the most brazen effort yet by Beijing to conduct “vaccine diplomacy” – offering early access to vaccine doses in exchange for favorable political or economic concessions.
Paraguay is one of Taiwan’s 15 official diplomatic allies and the only remaining Taiwanese ally in South America. In recent years, China has wooed its neighboring countries with promises of large infrastructure loans and investments, making offers of cash assistance Taiwan is unable to match.
Taiwan has managed to retain its relationship with Paraguay by deepening economic ties and emphasizing the similarities between the two – both small countries used to being bullied by big neighbors.
Paraguay’s foreign ministry did not react kindly to the alleged Chinese brokers, saying “the distressing humanitarian situation caused by the pandemic should not be used… to pursue a political or economic aim.”
Paraguay has recently been gripped by street protests due to public anger over the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Last week, thousands protested in the capital of Asuncion due to a spike in coronavirus cases and a dearth of available intensive care beds and medicine.
Taiwan, in response to those protests, offered to help Paraguay buy COVID-19 vaccines to begin inoculating its population.
Days earlier, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken urged Paraguay to work with Taiwan as it combats the pandemic. The U.S. State Department said Blinken spoke on March 14 to Paraguayan President Mario Abdo, whom protesters have demanded be impeached.
Earlier this month, Paraguay’s Senate approved a declaration of support to use $12.8 million given by Taiwan for a housing development project to procure 2 million vaccine doses.
Taiwan Foreign Minister Joseph Wu said this week any funds given to Paraguay by Taiwan cannot be used to buy vaccines manufactured in China.
“One of the conditions is that Chinese vaccines cannot be bought. Or, if you buy Chinese vaccines, then you cannot use our Taiwanese money,” Wu said.
Paraguay Foreign Minister Euclides Acevedo said his country would not accept vaccine deals with political or legal conditions, such as breaking ties with Taiwan.
The Chinese government has denied all involvement in the alleged scheme. Hua Chunying, China’s foreign ministry spokesperson, said without evidence the reports were part of a disinformation campaign originating in Taiwan.
China may have more opportunities for “vaccine diplomacy” in the months to come. Lower-income countries continue to struggle to secure doses while wealthy nations hoard excess vaccines, a practice which experts say could extend the pandemic’s lifespan by years.