The views and opinions expressed or implied in WBY are those of the authors and should not be construed as carrying the official sanction of the Department of Defense, Air Force, Air Education and Training Command, Air University, or other agencies or departments of the US government or their international equivalents.
By C2C Jamie Landy, USAF
/ Published September 16, 2021
Claims that governments can use vaccines for mass-brainwashing campaigns are absurd, right? For those worried about vaccines containing mind-controlling computer chips, you may set your concerns aside. But in a different way, Chinese vaccines—and medical diplomacy in general—are brainwashing in Latin America. Well, maybe not brainwashing, but they are certainly changing the way Latin Americans and their leaders think about and interact with China. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Latin America has looked to the international community for support and found China ready and willing to lend a helping hand.1 The medical assistance that China has offered many Latin American countries has secured China promising inroads of soft power in the region, suggesting a grim future for the US’ ability to maintain hegemony in the region.2
Over the past century and a half, the US has enjoyed privileges as the Western Hemisphere’s hegemon, including strong economic ties with Latin American nations and high levels of political influence in the region’s governments.3 One advantage of this influence has been the presence of US military installations in the region.4 By the end of World War II, the US was operating over 85 military bases and installations throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, displaying the immense power that the US has been able to maintain because of its hegemonic status.
Since the early 2000s, however, China has started to threaten US hegemony in the region.5 Excluding Mexico (incentivized to continue trading with the US because of the North American Free Trade Agreement), China now stands as the region’s number one trading partner.6 China has also started working to gain cultural, political, and even military influence in the region, strategically pushing the notion of a “South-South Connection” with Latin America, working to take advantage of existing Latin American resentment towards the US after a long history of asymmetric relations and exploitation.7
The COVID-19 pandemic, which ravaged Latin American populations and economies, provided China an opportunity to embed itself even further in the region. In the first 11 months of the pandemic, China gave Latin American countries nearly $550 million of medical supplies and money donations.8 This “mask diplomacy” turned heads in Latin America, frequently spotlighting as a savior-esque state.9 For example, Ecuadoran Vice President Otto Sonnenholzner expressed his gratitude for the supplies over Twitter: “Thank you China for cooperation and solidarity with Ecuador!”10 In similar fashion, Venezuelan Vice President Delcy Rodriguez took to a television broadcast to thank China, saying, “From Venezuela’s soul, we want to thank the People’s Republic of China and President Xi Jinping for this generosity.” 11 Clearly, China had started to increase their political capital with Latin American leaders within the first months of the pandemic.
These efforts also opened potential inroads in Latin American countries Beijing had not yet established diplomatic ties with, e.g., Paraguay. Beginning under anti-communist dictator Alfredo Stroessner, Paraguay has recognized Taiwan as the legitimate China for nearly seven decades.12 Because of Paraguay’s lasting allegiance to Taiwan, the People’s Republic of China excluded Paraguay from the mask diplomacy efforts that their South American neighbors were receiving.13 This caused turmoil among Paraguayan policymakers.
Despite having only 786 COVID-19 cases, Paraguay’s senate held a debate on 17 May 2020 over cutting ties with Taipei and to recognizing Beijing instead.14 Many of the senators in favor of severing relations with Taiwan directly cited concerns over missing out on Chinese aid over the course of the pandemic.15 To these senators, the possibility of Chinese medical assistance was attractive enough to part ways with 70 years of diplomatic partnership. Ultimately, however, the Senate voted to maintain relations with Taipei.16 Despite its eventual failure, this vote indicated to China that there is power in harnessing this medical crisis to establish new lines of soft power.
This being the case, China has carried these efforts of medical diplomacy into the era of vaccines. Even before the development of a working Chinese vaccine, China’s foreign ministry began laying the groundwork for a massive “vaccine diplomacy” campaign in the region, advertising their vaccine prospects to various leaders, setting up negotiations with Latin American states for procurement, and even offering a $1 billion loan to the region to buy Chinese vaccines when they came out.17
As of mid-April 2021, China’s three vaccine producers—CanSino, Sinopharm, and Sinovac—have in total sold more than 325 million vaccine doses to Latin American countries.18 In addition to vaccine procurement transactions, China has started to experiment with donating vaccines to certain countries. Notably, they donated 100,000 vaccines to Bolivia in early February, and recently, Salvadoran President Bukele announced that China would donate 150,000 vaccines to the country in addition to the two million doses El Salvador had already bought.19 Additionally, China is allegedly engaging in even more direct measures of persuasive vaccine diplomacy. Revisiting a debate from the beginning of the pandemic, Taiwan’s Foreign Minister Joseph Wu claims that Beijing has recently promised millions of vaccine doses to the Paraguayan government if they shift their allegiance away from Taipei.20 Though publicly rejecting such a claim, this behavior of China’s Foreign Ministry appears consistent with Chinese motivation for pursuing vaccine diplomacy.21
Another example of the effects of Chinese vaccine diplomacy is Brazil’s new stance on Chinese telecommunications provider, Huawei. The Pentagon’s decades-old concerns about Huawei’s potential to enable Chinese espionage have continued even after the US officially banned Huawei and their products from the country.22 The Trump Administration, for example, felt so strongly about keeping Huawei out of partner states that it threatened to sever the access of any ally that allowed Huawei to operate within their borders to all American intelligence, and directly asked 61 countries to ban the company entirely.23 Such threats seemed to keep Brazil “in line” with American security interests until the pandemic opened a window for a shift in policy.
For months, Brazilian policymakers—including President Jair Bolsonaro—have shunned Huawei.24 The Chinese company, however, is now eligible to provide construction materials for Brazil’s future 5G network, and the policy shift seems to come as a result of Chinese vaccine diplomacy.25 As Brazilian COVID cases surged in March, Brazilian officials grew desperate for a way to slow the pandemic without imposing lockdowns.26 About a visit to China, Brazil’s Communications Minister Fábio Faria recounts that he “took advantage of the trip to ask for vaccines.”27 China agreed, promising 100 million doses for Brazil’s vaccination campaign, and within two weeks, Brazil’s Ministry of Communications announced that Huawei would in fact be eligible to participate in the auction for Brazil’s 5G construction contracts.28 Given the simultaneous nature of the vaccine negotiations with the Huawei negotiations, it seems implausible that the two events were completely distinct.
So, what does this all mean for the US? One hypothesis is that China is just looking to stabilize their export markets so that their global trade networks can get back to business as usual. Another thought is that China is simply trying to clear its name on the international stage from accusations of being responsible for the pandemic.29 Still another explanation is that they are directly using the pandemic to expand Chinese soft power across the globe. All three hypotheses are plausible and are not mutually exclusive. This third notion, however, would have the greatest strategic implications for the US.
One example of how this may be of concern to US foreign policymakers is that as China’s partners in Latin America grow, they may gain sway in international organizations. To illustrate, let’s say that an issue arises at an Organization of American States (OAS) meeting that the US and China have differing views on. Given the one-state-one-vote structure of the OAS, if China convinces two-thirds of even the smallest countries to side with them on the issue, they could “win” the vote without even being a member state, enabling China to influence the hemisphere through pre-established structures.30
Another concern is that increased Chinese influence in the region could lead to increased Chinese military presence in the hemisphere. One manifestation of this fear that has garnered significant attention is China’s space station in the Patagonia region of Argentina.31 Local inhabitants often describe the facility as being shrouded in secrecy, and US security officials have voiced concerns about potential espionage usages of the station.32 In addition to the Pentagon’s concerns about what is in the region, I believe there should be a focus on what may not be there in the future. Namely, if China does effectively rope Latin American states into their sphere of influence, the countries may be incentivized to deny access to US military forces in the region. For example, Ecuador’s leftist and pro-China ex-President Rafael Correa refused to renew the Pentagon’s lease of Manta Air Base in 2007, a US military installation used for counter-narcotics operations.33 If this were to become a regular occurrence, the US military may suffer severely restricted mobility and forward-presence in its own hemisphere.
Given that there is no governing body with the authority to prevent China from pursuing said influence, and that China has shown no intention of reducing their forward posture, it is unreasonable to expect a weakening of China’s Latin American policies. The change that needs to happen to prevent this shifting allegiance of Latin American countries is in the US approach towards the region. Paraguayan Minister Acevedo put it quite plainly: recently Latin America is waiting on the US for “proof of their love.”34
What this means is that the US needs to create visible engagement with the region. These efforts need not be incredibly expensive nor complete overhauls of long-term US policy, but they need to help the region recover from COVID-19 and draw positive publicity for the US. An emphasis on pandemic recovery is important because a more-recovered nation will be less in-need of Chinese assistance, and therefore less susceptible to being pulled into their sphere of influence. Once a Latin American country fully vaccinates its population, for example, China would no longer be able to sway that state with vaccine diplomacy.
More importantly, however, is that the US should focus its efforts on highly public actions to try to cultivate goodwill in the region. If none of Latin America knows that the US was supporting pandemic recovery actions, it would not serve to increase nor maintain soft power in the region. One example of high-visibility support efforts to the region is vaccine distribution, a direction that the Biden Administration has recently announced it will pursue.35 The US could easily use vaccine deliveries as an advertising tool of sorts in that they would arrive on US airliners, be packaged in American labels, and likely garner similar expressions of gratitude from Latin American leaders as Chinese vaccines have.36
The US is undoubtedly at a pivotal moment for future relations with its southern neighbors. The pandemic has flipped international politics on its head, and China was there to take advantage of its disrupting effects. Despite concrete events during the pandemic that show a shift in Latin American policy to favor China, it is far from too late for the US to maintain its long-held hegemonic status in the region. The US just needs to show the proof of love that its Latin American allies have been waiting for. With this general approach, the US will be able to halt and reverse the expansion of Chinese influence over leaders and populations in the region. Though typically not the case in science-fiction movies, the brainwashing effects of Chinese vaccines are indeed reversible, and the US has the capacity to reverse them.
C2C Jamie Landy, USAF
Cadet Second Class Jamie Landy is a student at the US Air Force Academy who is majoring in both political science and foreign area studies and is earning a minor in the Spanish language. Cadet Landy studies the strategic significance of ties between world powers and the Latin American region. Cadet Landy has been published for his work on Chinese and US COVID-19 medical diplomacy efforts to Latin America in the USAF Journal of the Americas. He is currently researching the efficacy of Chinese COVID-19 medical diplomacy efforts on China’s shifting soft power in Latin America.
1 Whitney Eulich, “Latin America Asked for Pandemic Help. Russia and China Heard the Call,” Christian Science Monitor, 2 April 2021, https://www.csmonitor.com/.
2 Eric Li, “The Rise and Fall of Soft Power,” Foreign Policy, 20 August 2018, https://foreignpolicy.com/; Neal G. Jesse, et al., “The Leader Can’t Lead When the Followers Won’t Follow: The Limitations of Hegemony,” in Beyond Great Powers and Hegemons: Why Secondary States Support, Follow, or Challenge, eds. Kristen Williams, Steven Lobell, and Neal Jesse (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2012), 3.
3 Eric Hershberg, “Venezuela: A Test of U.S. Hegemony in Latin America,” American University Latin America Blog, 31 January 2019, https://aulablog.net/.
4 David Vine, Base Nation: How U.S. Military Bases Abroad Harm America and the World (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2015).
5 Enrique Dussel Peters, China’s Evolving Role in Latin America: Can It Be a Win-Win? (Washington, DC: Atlantic Council, 2015), 1.
6 Cassandra Garrison, “In Latin America, a Biden White House Faces a Rising China,” Reuters, 14 December 2020, https://www.reuters.com/.
7 Margaret Myers and Rebecca Ray, “Chinese Finance to LAC, 2020,” Report presented at The Inter-American Dialogue’s virtual event, February 2021; J.C. Chasteen, “Emergence of the Neocolonial Order,” in The Contemporary History of Latin America (Durham: Duke University Press, 1993), 116.
8 James Landy and Kelly Piazza, “Who is Seizing the ‘COVID-19 Moment?’ A Battle for Power in Latin America,” United States Air Force Journal of the Americas 3, no. 1 (2021), 201.
9 Brian Wong, “China’s Mask Diplomacy,” The Diplomat, 25 March 2020, https://thediplomat.com/.
10 Cassandra Garrison, “With U.S. Hit by Virus, China Courts Latin America with Medical Diplomacy,” Reuters, 26 March 2020, https://www.reuters.com/.
11 Reuters Staff, “Venezuela Lift Coronavirus Cases to 42, Thanks China for Aid,” Reuters, 19 March 2020, https://www.reuters.com/.
12 Julian Tucker and Larissa Stünkel, “Taiwan-Paraguay Relations: Convergent Trajectories,” Institute for Security & Development Policy, 23 October 2020, https://isdp.eu/.
13 Lucy Hale, “I’m from Taiwan, and I’m Here to Help,” Wilson Center, 10 July 2020, https://www.wilsoncenter.org/.
14 Hannah Ritchie, et al., “Paraguay: Coronavirus Pandemic Country Profile,” Our World in Data, accessed 30 April 2021, https://ourworldindata.org/; Hale, “I’m from Taiwan, and I’m Here to Help.”
15 Hannah Ritchie, et al., “Paraguay,”; Hale, “I’m from Taiwan, and I’m Here to Help.”
16 Hannah Ritchie, et al., “Paraguay,”; Hale, “I’m from Taiwan, and I’m Here to Help.”
17 Juan Pablo Spinetto and Samy Adghirni, “China Gives $1 Billion Loan for Latin America Vaccine Access,” Bloomberg, 23 July 2020, https://www.bloomberg.com/.
18 Chase Harrison, Luisa Horwitz, and Carin Zissis, “Timeline: Tracking Latin America’s Road to Vaccination,” Americas Society/Council of the Americas, 3 May 2021, https://www.as-coa.org/.
19 Harrison, Horwitz, and Zissis, “Timeline.”
20 “Taiwan Accuses China of ‘Vaccine Diplomacy’ in Paraguay,” British Broadcasting Channel, 7 April 2021, https://www.bbc.com/.
21 “Taiwan Accuses China of ‘Vaccine Diplomacy’ in Paraguay.”
22 David Sanger, “Trump Wants to Wall of Huawei, but the Digital World Bridles at Barriers,” New York Times, 27 May 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/.
23 Sanger, “Trump Wants to Wall of Huawei,”; Fareed Zakaria, “The New China Scare: Why America Shouldn’t Panic About Its Latest Challenger,” Foreign Affairs, 6 December 2019, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/.
24 Ernesto Londoño and Letícia Casado, “Brazil Needs Vaccines. China Is Benefiting,” New York Times, 15 March 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/.
25 Londoño and Casado, “Brazil Needs Vaccines.”
26 “Covid: Brazil Has More Than 4,000 Deaths in 24 Hours for First Time,” British Broadcasting Channel, 7 April 2021, https://www.bbc.com/.
27 Londoño and Casado, “Brazil Needs Vaccines.”
28 Londoño and Casado, “Brazil Needs Vaccines.”
29 Bruce Lee, “Trump Once Again Calls Covid-19 Coronavirus The ‘Kung Flu,’” Forbes, 24 Junes 2020, https://www.forbes.com/.
30 Organization of American States, Charter of the Organization of American States, amended on 10 June 1993.
31 Cassandra Garrison, “China’s Military-Run Space Station in Argentina is a ‘Black Box,’” Reuters, 30 January 2019, https://www.reuters.com/.
32 Garrison, “China’s Military-Run Space Station in Argentina is a ‘Black Box.’”
33 Garrison, “China’s Military-Run Space Station in Argentina is a ‘Black Box.’”
34 Whitney Eulich, “Latin America Asked for Pandemic Help. Russia and China Heard the Call,” Christian Science Monitor, 2 April 2021, https://www.csmonitor.com/.
35 Nathaniel Weixel, “Biden Vows US Will Be ‘Arsenal of Vaccination’ for Other Countries,” The Hill, 28 April 2021, https://thehill.com/; Tamara Keith, “Biden Takes First Jab At Vaccine Diplomacy, Sharing Does with Mexico, Canada,” National Public Radio, 19 March 2021, https://www.npr.org/.
36 James Landy, “Interview with World Bank Employee about Chinese and US pandemic Diplomacy in Latin America,” 17 April 2021.
37 Peter Hotez, “‘Vaccine Diplomacy’: Historical Perspectives and Future Directions,” PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases 8, no. 6 (2014), 1-7.
38 Jie, Guo, “What Will Result from Efforts at Vaccine Diplomacy?” Latin America Advisor, 20 April 2021.
39 Tom Long and Francisco Urdinez, “Taiwan’s Last Stand in South America,” Americas Quarterly, 7 May 2020, https://www.americasquarterly.org/.
40 Patricia Luna, “Chile Defiende Uso de la Vacuna China Sinovac,” AP News, 11 April 2021, https://apnews.com/.
41 Phil Stewart, “Ecuador Wants Military Base in Miami,” Reuters, 22 October 2007, https://www.reuters.com/.
42 Hilton Yip, “It’s Time to Stop Pandering to Beijing Over Taiwan,” Foreign Policy, 8 May 2020, https://foreignpolicy.com/.
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