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China is using vaccines to push its agenda in Latin America, and the U.S. is behind the curve, experts say

Latin American officials say China has pushed their countries to cut ties with Taiwan in return for badly needed Covid-19 vaccines.
Bolivian President Luis Arce talks with Chinese Ambassador to Bolivia Huang Yazhong in Santa Cruz, Feb. 24, 2021.Xinhua News Agency / Getty Images file

WASHINGTON — China is using Covid-19 vaccines to push its political and trade agenda across Latin America and the Caribbean, and the U.S. risks losing influence in the region without prompt action, lawmakers and experts say.

China in recent months sent more than 165 million Chinese-made vaccine doses to Latin America and the Caribbean, accompanied by a concerted public relations campaign highlighting Beijing's role.

The United States until recently was focused on getting the coronavirus outbreak under control, and has shipped out few vaccines. President Joe Biden has promised to give away 80 million doses but his administration has yet to announce where it will send vaccines abroad.

Members of Congress and regional experts say the administration needs to catch up with China and start getting vaccines to Latin America, and to make sure the world knows that the vaccines are coming from the U.S.

Several Latin American countries, including Chile, El Salvador, Brazil and Uruguay, are relying almost exclusively on Chinese-made vaccines, according to data from the Pan American Health Organization. Russia has also sent a smaller number of vaccines to the region.

Honduras and Paraguay, however, face a shortage of vaccines but have not received any Chinese-made doses. Both countries say they have been offered Chinese-made vaccines in return for cutting diplomatic ties with Taiwan, which China insists is part of its territory.

"China has used this moment to flex its muscles in the region," said Jason Marczak, director of the Latin American Center at the Atlantic Council think tank.

Although Beijing has faced criticism about how it handled the pandemic, which first emerged in the Chinese province of Wuhan, China has worked to focus public attention on how it is helping other countries fight the virus.

"From a public relations standpoint, China has sought to shift the narrative from China being at the center of the Covid problem to China being at the center of the Covid solution," Marczak said.

A senior Honduran official, Carlos Alberto Madero, chief cabinet coordinator, recently said the need for vaccines put his country "in a very difficult situation" and he could not rule out having to sever ties with Taiwan.

"The Honduran people start to see that China is helping its allies and we start to ask ourselves why ours are not helping us," Madero told the Financial Times.

China has denied that it has offered vaccines to countries in return for political favors. The Chinese embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.

Apart from a donation of about 4 million doses to Canada and Mexico, Biden administration officials are still deliberating over which countries will receive vaccines. Lawmakers and regional experts are pushing the White House hard to place a priority on Latin America and the Caribbean, arguing the move is justified for both public health and strategic reasons.

Brazil's Health Minister Eduardo Pazuello (C) during a press conference at the distribution center of the health ministry as doses of the Chinese CoronaVac vaccine arrive in Sao Paulo on January 18, 2021.Miguel Schincariol / AFP via Getty Images file

"Without U.S. engagement and leadership, our competitors will continue efforts to use their less effective vaccines as leverage to coerce Latin America and Caribbean nations in support of a diplomatic agenda inimical to ours," three senators, Republican Marco Rubio and Democrats Bob Menendez and Tim Kaine, said in a letter to Biden last week.

Lawmakers pressed the argument at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing this month, saying the administration had to set priorities and ensure donations had a clear "made-in-the-USA" label.

"If you are going to prioritize the entire globe, we may not make the kind of impact we want," said Kaine, D-Va.

Gayle Smith, State Department coordinator for global Covid-19 response, replied, "I can assure you there's a lot of attention to our hemisphere."

A State Department spokesperson told NBC News that the administration "will have more to say about which countries we are distributing these vaccines to soon."

Biden's promise to give away 80 million doses to other countries far surpasses what other governments have pledged. And Washington has committed $4 billion in support of the international COVAX platform backed by the World Health Organization, which donates vaccines to countries in need.

Workers transport boxes of Chinese vaccines in Brasilia, Brazil, Jan. 18, 2021.Xinhua News Agency / Getty Images

"We will work with COVAX and other partners to ensure safe and effective vaccines are delivered in a way that is equitable and follows the science and public health data," a spokesperson for the National Security Council said.

"Importantly, our shots don't come with strings attached," the spokesperson added. "We're sharing vaccines with the world and leading the world in a global vaccine strategy because it's the right thing to do: the right thing morally, the right thing from a global public health perspective, and right for our collective security and well-being."

As for Honduras, the spokesperson said that the country had received more vaccines from COVAX than any other source, and that additional vaccines were due to arrive through the COVAX platform in the coming weeks.

America's vaccine donation commitments are well beyond anything promised by China.

In Latin America, Beijing is primarily selling — not donating — doses to countries in the region, according to R. Evan Ellis, research professor of Latin American studies at the U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute.

Nevertheless, China has portrayed itself in social media and state media as coming to the aid of Latin American countries as they face a lethal pandemic, Ellis said.

U.S. donations eclipse "what the Chinese have done, but the Chinese have made every delivery at an airport tarmac into a photo op," Ellis told the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission on Thursday.

"The president comes out and the boxes roll out with Chinese flags on them. And so the Chinese unfortunately have done a better job marketing and have done a much better job in the early phases in getting the production levels up," he said.

"We cannot allow the Chinese Communist Party to leverage this pandemic to undermine our national security interests in Latin America and the Caribbean," said Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. "Countries like Honduras are under pressure to switch diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China in order to receive much-needed vaccines from the CCP (Chinese Communist Party)."

Smith, Biden's point-person in the global fight against Covid-19, described "vaccine diplomacy" by China and Russia as "robust and cynical." She said the administration needed "to make clear that the United States sees vaccines as tools for ending a pandemic, and not as tools to twist people's arms or try to secure political influence."

Earlier in the pandemic, China employed "mask diplomacy" to raise its profile in the region, publicizing the delivery of surgical masks and other medical supplies. Over the past decade, China has made major inroads into Latin American markets, surpassing the U.S. as the biggest trading partner for Brazil, Chile, Peru and Uruguay.

China has invested in ports, roads, dams and railways, often offering loans to Latin American governments, and made big purchases of minerals and agricultural commodities. China already has used its economic power to position Huawei and other state-owned companies to play a key role in the region's telecommunications and space sectors.

In the Caribbean, China has financed projects including government buildings, roads and cricket stadiums in Antigua, Jamaica, Grenada, St. Lucia and the tiny country of Dominica, and invested billions in new ports and resorts.

ICC Cricket World Cup Super Eights - Australia v England
A general view as Australia play England at the Sir Vivian Richards Stadium on April 8, 2007 in St. John's, Antigua and Barbuda. The majority of the funds to build the cricket stadium came from a Chinese government grant.Hamish Blair / Getty Images file

The trade has brought political benefits. Grenada and Dominica cut their ties to Taiwan. In Latin America, Beijing persuaded three countries to abandon their diplomatic recognition of Taiwan since 2017: Panama, the Dominican Republic and El Salvador. But countries that have refused to go along, like Paraguay, have been shut out of China's public works financing and face trade barriers to exporting their agricultural products.

Apart from countering China, lawmakers and experts say the United States needs to send vaccines to a region where cases are on the rise, particularly given that 77 percent of all visitors this year traveling to the United States came from Latin America and the Caribbean.

Covid-19 cases have sharply increased in Argentina and Colombia, where authorities have imposed lockdowns, and infections are also on the rise in the Caribbean states of Trinidad and Tobago and Haiti. Latin America and the Caribbean account for roughly one-third of the global death toll from Covid-19.

With more U.S.-made vaccines becoming available, and domestic demand in the U.S. decreasing, the Biden administration still has a chance to provide help to Latin America and the Caribbean if it moves now, according to Marczak of the Atlantic Council.

"It's not too late to make an impact. China has been in the lead in the vaccine diplomacy game in the region, but with the number of U.S. vaccines that are coming on line to be distributed globally, the U.S. has an opportunity to regain the lead," he said.