China came to the rescue of Latin America with its vaccines. What geopolitical outcomes can we expect from this move?

China was eager to restore its damaged image as soon the COVID-19 health emergency was domestically under control. Veiled accusations of delaying the release of information on the virus were undermining China’s already fragile track record in transparency.

The supposed connection between the virus and a wet market in Wuhan sparked international disapproval on China’s hygiene and health standards. In this anti-Chinese environment Xi Jinping was impatient to turn the tables. 

When vaccines were still in the making,  the Communist Party started its ‘mask diplomacy’ campaign. Italy was the first country to receive PPE and welcome a team of Chinese doctors, and by the end of April 89 other countries had been sent either medical equipment or experts.

The concept of a ‘Health Silk Road’, which had been used since 2015 by Chinese diplomats to describe global cooperation on health issues, suddenly took on a new meaning. It soon became clear that China’s commendable efforts to help countries in difficulty was not just a way to rebuild its image and reputation, but also to expand its influence. 

In May Xi Jinping announced that Chinese vaccines would be a ‘global public good’, later adding ‘at a fair and reasonable price’. On February 8, a spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry announced that vaccine aidwould be provided to 53 developing countries, as well as offering 10 million doses to the COVAX program.

China has apparently exported a higher number of doses of its own vaccines than it has distributed domestically. Vaccine donations to developing countries, however, come at a price, no matter how fair and reasonable that price might be. Xi Jinping’s intention to expand its influence and soft power clearly lays behind this strategy.

And so far it has proven successful. As Western countries turned their backs on emerging countries to prioritise their own citizens’ inoculation, China came to the rescue.

Chinese aid in Africa during the pandemic does not come as a surprise since Xi’s ‘neo-colonialist’ strategy, as some like to put it, is often discussed in the media and in academia. What we should keep an eye out for in the coming months is how China is strengthening its ties with Latin America through vaccine exports and aid.

Chinese expansion in America’s Backyard has been growing over the past years, even though it has been largely been overlooked by the media. Nineteen Latin American countries have already joined the Belt and Road Initiative and the outcomes are already showing. In fact, in 2019 Chinese companies invested 16.5% more than the previous year in the continent. Brazil’s largest trading partner used to be the United States and has now been replaced by China, and this could unfold for other economies in the region as well. 

During the pandemic, Latin American countries have had no choice but to turn to the East for help. Together with Russia, China is now providing vaccines to the region on a large scale. So what can China gain from vaccine diplomacy in Latin America? 

As the informal appellative ‘America’s Backyard’ conveys, Latin America is in an extremely advantageous geographical position for China to expand its influence. The proximity to the United States would allow China to pressure the United States both geopolitically and geographically.

The vaccines are an opportunity to build or strengthen bilateral relations in the region. For example  Bolsonaro, Brazil’s president, had bashed the possibility of inoculating its citizens with a Chinese-made vaccine last year. Now that Trump has left and a new wave of infections is ravaging through the country, he has changed his mind and ordered 30 million doses. 

Xi Jinping can also use the vaccines’ leverage in other fields, such as technology. China’s ambitions as a cyber superpower are clearly reflected in the Digital Silk Road project. With the pandemic, we have all realised how dependent our societies are on technology. This is the perfect time for China to push its technological infrastructure into Latin America especially now that Trump, who was so strongly against it, is out of the Oval Office.

The first sign of this change of sentiment towards Chinese technology in Latin America came in mid-March. Bolsonaro, who had vowed to build a 5G network ‘without Chinese espionage’, has now allowed Huawei to participate in its 5G auction.

Lastly, since joining the BRICS, China has manifested its intensions of becoming somewhat of a representative of developing countries. Being the largest and most influential among the BRICS, China has naturally taken a leading position in advocating for emerging and developing countries’ interests on the global stage as well as challenging traditional global governance. Having already consolidated its influence in Asia and Africa, vaccine diplomacy is an opportunity for Xi to expand its reach in Latin America.

Year after year, China has managed to exert its influence in regions that the West had shown no interest in since the colonial age. The pandemic meant that developing countries had no one to turn to but Xi, which further strengthened this dependency mechanism. As the saying goes, “hard times reveal true friends”.

Latin American countries will not forget China’s help during the pandemic, and we can expect this relationship to intensify in the coming years. 

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