As millions tuned in last month to watch Lionel Messi secure his first international trophy with Argentina in the Copa America final, flashy football was not the only thing illuminating the pitch. In stark capital letters, the word “SINOVAC” blazed across the perimeter advertising screens. The Chinese vaccine giant’s presence at South America’s biggest football tournament reflects the reality that China is taking a more active role in helping the region, while the United States stands on the sidelines.
Chinese vaccine diplomacy in Latin America has skyrocketed in recent months. In preparation for the Copa America tournament, Sinovac donated 50,000 vaccines to the South American football governing body CONMEBOL. Beijing is investing in vaccine diplomacy to enhance its regional soft power. It’s time for the United States to pay more attention to a region that it often takes for granted.
Latin America and the Caribbean have registered over a million deaths from COVID-19, and new variants continue to drive economic shutdowns in Colombia and Trinidad and Tobago. While the United States’ $4 billion commitment to the World Health Organization’s COVAX initiative outstrips every other international donor, logistical obstacles and Western pharmaceutical companies’ need to prioritize U.S. government contracts have slowed down vaccine distribution.
Meanwhile, China has raced to fill the vaccine gap, and they’ve been successful. According to the Council of Americas, the majority of all vaccines administered in Latin America are sourced from Beijing. True, Uruguay, Costa Rica, and the Dominican Republic have questioned the efficacy of Chinese Sinovac inoculations, and a Chilean study found that Sinovac was only 54 percent effective in preventing contagion, while Pfizer and Moderna record much higher efficacy. Yet the speed and scale of Beijing’s vaccine campaign has forced governments to accept the less-effective Chinese vaccine; there are few alternatives on offer.
President Xi Jinping is already using vaccine diplomacy to advance other Chinese interests. China has pressured Honduras and Paraguay to sever diplomatic ties with Taiwan in order to receive Chinese vaccines, and successfully pushed Brazil to reverse its ban on telecom giant Huawei’s 5G network project.
Vaccine diplomacy is only the newest instance of increased Chinese trade and investment in Latin America. Meanwhile, Washington continues to entangle itself in exploits in distant regions rather than prioritizing ties in its own neighborhood. Latin American policymakers are growing increasingly disillusioned with Washington’s inattention to regional development and progress. Honduran chief cabinet coordinator Carlos Alberto Madero sums up the increasing frustration: “The Honduran people… see that China is helping its allies and we start to ask ourselves why ours are not helping us.” The pandemic is still raging in the region, and Washington has an opportunity to rebound by increasing the pace of vaccine donations.
Attempting to block further Chinese penetration into Latin America is futile, but Washington can reaffirm its position as a stable power committed to regional development and prosperity, especially in the wake of the pandemic. As more U.S. vaccines become available, Washington should develop a coherent strategy to facilitate vaccine negotiations and prioritize a region that comprises just 5 percent of global population but accounts for a quarter of the global COVID-19 death toll.
An easy way to improve U.S. vaccine diplomacy is to increase the presence of U.S. officials in vaccine distribution. This would send a clear message that the American people, not impersonal multinational corporations, are providing the vaccines. Vaccine arrivals from China and Russia have been overseen by diplomatic officials, which has increased public support and press coverage. But on a more fundamental level, ramping up the scope of vaccine donations demonstrates that the U.S. cares about its neighbors. Vaccine diplomacy also offers an opportunity for the Biden administration to distinguish itself from former President Donald Trump’s chauvinistic legacy by investing in non-military forms of engagement.
The United States should make a concerted effort to help its Latin American neighbors vaccinate their populations against COVID-19. Investing in vaccine diplomacy and expediting the region’s economic recovery will further both Latin American and U.S. interests.