For generations, Latin American foreign policy has revolved around the U.S. Now China is the center of political debates across the region, underscoring its newfound clout.
Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro is no fan of China. In fact, he’s one of Beijing’s biggest critics globally — even relying on conspiracy theories like a recent suggestion that COVID-19 might have been developed in a lab.
Yet in March, he fired close ally and then Foreign Minister Ernesto Araújo, who was making a hobby of attacking China. Brazil has the world’s second-highest death toll from COVID-19 and Araújo’s dismissal came amid growing pressure on Bolsonaro over his administration’s poor relations with China, which the president’s opponents believe are responsible for the South American giant’s failure to secure more vaccines.
The sacrificing of Araújo highlights the undeniable power of China’s rising diplomatic clout in America’s extended neighborhood, riding on a soft power tool that Washington has ignored for far too long. From Mexico to Chile, Latin America has embraced Chinese COVID-19 vaccines, after the U.S. — first under Donald Trump and then under current President Joe Biden — refused to share shots. Biden has now reversed that ban on vaccine exports and promised to share doses with Mexico and other developing nations. But China’s head start is such that it’s not just Washington-wary left-wing governments in the region that are doing Beijing’s bidding, but also conservative regimes.
Take Colombia, a nation that Biden as recently as October described as a “keystone” of U.S. policy in Latin America and the Caribbean. In March, as the U.S. and its allies were accusing China of genocide in Xinjiang and imposing sanctions on the world’s second-largest economy, the right-wing government of President Iván Duque Márquez praised Beijing’s human rights record at the United Nations. China is responsible for more than 75% of Colombia’s COVID-19 vaccines.
Further south, Paraguay, ruled by the conservative Colorado Party, is one of the world’s few nations that still maintains diplomatic relations with Taiwan instead of China (Beijing’s “One China” principle means countries must choose). But as Paraguay battles the pandemic, it received 20,000 Chinese vaccine doses through Chile in March. Days later, reports suggested China had promised more shots if Paraguay severed ties with Taiwan. Spooked, Taiwan reached out to democratic friends India and America. India sent 100,000 vaccine shots to Paraguay late in March, and in May, the U.S. promised more doses. Taiwan’s foreign affairs minister, Joseph Wu, publicly accused China of trying to dangle a vaccine carrot before Paraguay, acknowledging that its South American ally was under serious pressure to reconsider ties with the self-governing territory that Beijing claims.
And then there’s Guyana. Like several nations, it formally has diplomatic ties with China but engages in trade with Taiwan, too. In February, Guyana announced it would allow the East Asian island of 23 million people to set up a trade and investment office. It’s a move that was lauded by the U.S., and one that could help Guyana at a time when it is emerging as a crude oil hub thanks to the discovery of vast offshore reserves. But Beijing criticized the plan, and weeks later, it supplied 20,000 vaccines and promised even more help. Taiwan blamed China’s interference for preventing the establishment of the office.
To be clear, China’s threats and allurements won’t drag the region away from the unmatched political and cultural influence of America. Millions of families across Latin America have relatives in the U.S. Then there’s the reality of geography. When political or economic crises hit the region, waves of migrants seek entry to the U.S. They won’t be lining up at the Chinese Embassy in their nations, and won’t make it anywhere near the Chinese border.
China’s vaccines, too, have sparked some concerns over their efficacy, which is lower than the protection offered by Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca shots. During clinical trials in Peru, the Chinese Embassy facilitated vaccine shots for select people who weren’t supposed to have received them, sparking controversy and an investigation.
But Chinese COVID-19 vaccines have also inoculated entire Brazilian towns, allowing them to emerge as beacons of hope in a country ravaged by the pandemic. Until now, China’s influence in Latin America was almost entirely economic, attained through massive investments and mega infrastructure projects. Now, Beijing has dramatically broadened its footprint in the region, gaining soft power leverage, too.
And the biggest marker of China’s growing position lies in the way Beijing has entered the bloodstream of Latin America’s politics. For generations, the U.S. was the pole around which the foreign policy of political parties across the region revolved. Parties either touted their ability to secure stronger ties with Washington or proudly advertised anti-American sentiments.
For the first time, that’s now changing. In Paraguay, the opposition was keen on the country accepting Chinese vaccines before the intervention from India and the U.S. eliminated that need.
Meanwhile, in Brazil’s most populous state, São Paulo, Governor João Doria has locked horns with Bolsonaro over the president’s criticism of Beijing and his attempts earlier in the pandemic to block the use of Chinese vaccines. Doria is expected to challenge Bolsonaro for the presidency in 2022. China will likely be a central electoral theme in Latin America’s largest nation for the first time, and the U.S. will need to play catch up.