China in Latin America: Exaggerating Medical Diplomacy

By Christopher Kambhu*

Peru’s Foreign Ministry greets Sinopharm staff/ Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

China has garnered positive media coverage throughout Latin America for its COVID‑19 diplomacy, but it is far from clear if these efforts have altered the country’s regional standing. Coverage of its medical diplomacy has oversold its impact compared to the United States and obscured varying levels of support between countries.

  • Since the pandemic’s emergence across Latin America in early 2020, China has engaged in diplomatic efforts to send medical supplies – and later vaccines – throughout the region. Research by CLALS shows that, as of this month, China has donated $253 million worth of medical supplies, from masks to field hospitals. In addition, Beijing and its diplomatic corps have facilitated donations worth tens of millions of dollars from other Chinese entities, including foundations, businesses, and provincial and local governments. China has sold 409 million doses of domestically developed vaccines and further donated 1 million doses in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Deliveries of vaccines and medical supplies typically include photos ops at the airport, with Chinese flags conspicuously placed on packaging. Announcements of medical donations often include ceremonies at the Chinese embassy in the recipient country, even when the donation is from a non-state entity. These events obscure the line between state and non-state aid, and between vaccine sales and donations. By blurring these distinctions, some media have given unearned credit to Beijing by reporting “Chinese donations” without specifying the source.

  • This communication strategy has effectively created a narrative that China is gaining influence in Latin America through its medical diplomacy. The resulting media coverage – particularly think pieces analyzing geopolitical implications – has overshadowed the fact that Washington has provided more regional assistance than Beijing. As of this month, the United States has donated $310 million in medical supplies and cash assistance, significantly more than what China has donated. The same is true with vaccines: the U.S. has sold 427 million doses of domestically developed vaccines and donated 46 million more, outpacing Chinese efforts.
  • The narrative surrounding China’s medical diplomacy has also buried differences between individual countries. None of the countries that recognize Taiwan – Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Paraguay – have received any medical donations, nor have they been able to procure Chinese vaccines. In April 2020, Paraguay’s legislature debated switching recognition to China from Taiwan to appease Beijing and gain access to Chinese support.
  • The Chinese government has also used vaccines to quell criticism from regional leaders. In May 2021, Sinovac executives reportedly told Brazilian officials that vaccine shipping delays were due to Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s continued ridicule of China as COVID-19’s country of origin. Acting under reported pressure from Beijing, the executives indicated that improved Sino-Brazilian relations would resolve the issue.

As the pandemic continues wreaking havoc on Latin American economies and societies, China’s medical diplomacy faces a changing landscape. The United States has increased its own vaccine diplomacy in recent months, including donations totaling 2.6 billion doses to COVAX, a UN-backed initiative distributing vaccines to low- and middle-income nations (China has only contributed 120 million doses). The Administration of President Joe Biden now is also promoting its medical diplomacy efforts with as much fanfare as Beijing.

  • While China’s efforts have generated a positive narrative, they have not fundamentally altered its standing in Latin America. Politicians, public health workers, and citizens appreciated the donations of masks and other medical supplies in the pandemic’s early days, but the response to China’s vaccines has been more muted. Access to Chinese-made vaccines is better than none, but they do not match the higher efficacy (real and perceived) of U.S. and European vaccines. Moreover, regional leaders are not rushing to embrace Beijing; Bolsonaro continues denigrating China even while its vaccines constitute more than one third of Brazil’s supply. Despite its successful communication strategies to date, China must look long-term to convert this generally positive narrative into improved public opinion.

November 23, 2021

* Christopher Kambhu is a Program Coordinator at CLALS. This research is part of a CLALS project on China’s Messaging in Latin America and the Caribbean, supported by the Institute for War & Peace Reporting with funding from the U.S. Department of State. 

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