COVID-19: Vaccine Diplomacy Drives Hard Bargain

By Eric Hershberg, Christopher Kambhu, and Carla Froy*

Sinopharm Vaccine Supplies Arriving in Peru/ Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores, Cancillería del Perú/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

China, Russia, and the United States are offering millions of desperately needed COVID-19 vaccines to Latin American governments in exchange for policy changes that suit the supplying governments, and – with limited supply and fierce global demand for vaccines – regional governments are playing along.

  • China’s strategy builds on its promotion of medical supplies from its state-owned and private firms to become Latin America’s COVID-19 partner of choice. It has signed deals for vaccines produced by Sinovac and Sinopharm totaling nearly 200 million doses regionally, including with Argentina, Brazil, and Chile. The government has offered $1 billion in loans to facilitate vaccine purchases.
  • Russia, in turn, has secured deals for nearly 125 million doses of its state-developed Sputnik vaccine with Argentina, Mexico, and Peru. It is also negotiating with Brazil and Venezuela to host vaccine trials in exchange for more favorable supply deals. Moscow aims to build upon these connections to forge stronger commercial ties.
  • While the United States has made fewer deals, the administration of President Joe Biden announced in mid-March that it would give 2.5 million surplus AstraZeneca vaccine doses to Mexico. The deal occurred the same day as Mexico announced further travel restrictions limiting Central American migration to the U.S. border, suggesting that Washington, like Beijing and Moscow, is linking vaccine deals with favorable policies in the region.

The three vaccine suppliers’ actions are already influencing relations between them and Latin American countries. Before Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) had his first phone call with President Biden, he had already finalized a deal for 24 million Sputnik doses and extended a state visit invitation to Vladimir Putin. In Brazil, regulators reversed their earlier position, adopted after aggressive lobbying from Washington, and allowed Chinese telecom Huawei to bid on 5G network construction contracts shortly after reaching a deal for tens of millions of Sinovac doses. In the long term, closer regional ties with Russia and China could influence Latin American governments to tilt more favorably toward the preferences of Moscow and Beijing in bilateral relations, at the United Nations, and in regional bodies such as CELAC.

In addition to offering deals to Latin American partners, the three governments promote their own efforts by critiquing their rivals. Chinese officials describe their objective as equitable vaccine access, contrasting it to Western nations stockpiling many more doses than their populations require. Their U.S. counterparts are no less circumspect; a senior Biden official accused China and Russia of “vaccine mercantilism” while promoting Washington’s collaboration.

  • Claims from Beijing, Moscow, and Washington that they merely wish to advance global vaccine cooperation fail to obscure the hard bargains on offer. All three governments are leveraging the desperation of Latin American officials to extract policy concessions that suit their interests. Nowhere is this more evident than in Paraguay – the only South American nation that has diplomatic relations with Taiwan – which is struggling to access Chinese vaccines. Press reports indicate that China is linking a vaccine deal with Asunción breaking those relations; the Paraguayan foreign minister’s recent call for closer economic and cultural ties with China suggests this pressure is working. Latin American governments face a stark choice: reorient their foreign policies in exchange for vaccines or remain mired in the pandemic’s mounting health and economic costs.

April 16, 2021

* Eric Hershberg is the CLALS Director, Christopher Kambhu is a Program Coordinator at CLALS, and Carla Froy is a graduate student at American University’s School of Public Affairs.

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1 Comment

  1. Good analysis These power games leave us wondering if vaccine diplomacy still falls under the label of “soft power”? Btw, India has also entered the game, becoming an important vaccine supplier in a number of small Caribbean island states. Just recall that the Caribbean has more votes in the UN than all of South America together, so vaccine diplomacy has allowed some of them to become much better stocked with vaccines than any Latin American (and, for that matter, EU) country. For a brief analysis on this: https://www.ips-journal.eu/topics/foreign-and-security-policy/the-caribbeans-skilful-vaccine-diplomacy-5084/

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