Vaccine diplomacy in Latin America: why Russia and China intervened

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Russia and China have spent decades trying to make economic and diplomatic inroads in Latin America. Could 2021 be the year their hard work begins to bear fruit?

So far, Moscow and Beijing have delivered vaccines to the hard-hit region faster than its northern neighbor. This could have lasting geopolitical effects in countries long considered dependent on the United States for their international leadership. The long-term benefits for China and Russia could go beyond strengthening trade ties, to greater soft power in the region and support in bodies like the United Nations – at a time when the two countries are doing so. in the face of criticism of human rights.

Why we wrote this

Latin America has long been seen as a de facto ally of its northern neighbor. But could pandemic aid from Russia and China challenge the status quo?

“Nobody [receiving doses] is currently worried about violations of human rights or democracy in these countries, ”said Andrés Serbin, president of a regional think tank. “What is clear and will be remembered is that they came to help before the United States or the EU. It is the perception of the people. “

“The United States should see this as a red flag that they are losing influence,” said José María Ramos, professor at the Mexican Northern Frontier College. “He needs to rethink his approach.”

Mexico

Governments in Latin America – hard hit by the coronavirus – have thanked the international community in recent weeks. But one nation was notably absent from their thanks: the United States.

“Who would have guessed that … the only vaccines that we would receive are Russian and Chinese? Argentinian Vice-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner mused last week.

About 2.7 million doses arrived in Mexico City from the United States this week. For the most part, however, Russia and China delivered faster than the United States and Europe. This could have lasting geopolitical effects in a region long seen as relying on its giant neighbor to the North for international leadership.

Why we wrote this

Latin America has long been seen as a de facto ally of its northern neighbor. But could pandemic aid from Russia and China challenge the status quo?

Russia and China have spent decades trying to make economic and diplomatic inroads in Latin America – through Spanish media coverage, arms sales, and commerce – with varying success. But observers say prioritizing Latin America now could have long-term payoffs, ranging from support from bodies like the United Nations to stronger trade deals and economic relations.

“It’s very clear that it’s not just about vaccine diplomacy, but vaccine geopolitics,” says Andrés Serbin, president of CRIES, a regional think tank dedicated to social and economic issues based in Argentina. “In Latin America, we are often seen as peripheral [in global affairs] but we suddenly became a goal for countries to strengthen their own interests through a stronger presence – whether economic or strategic. “

What do Russia and China want?

The US decision to focus first on supplying its own people amplified a leadership vacuum in the region that arguably began after 9/11, when US interests turned resolutely to the Middle East and the fight against terrorism. Russia and China saw an opportunity to intervene.

Today, expeditions are a way of demonstrating that “if you are in difficulty, [Russia] is here to help you, ”says Victor Jeifets, professor at St. Petersburg State University who focuses on Russia’s relations with Latin America. “We have the capacity, we have the technology. The same goes for China. “

This is a message that some countries, like Paraguay, have heard loud and clear. The country of 7 million inhabitants is one of the last in Latin America to still recognize Taiwan as the “real China”. Senators tried to change allegiance to Beijing last April, arguing that China would better help Paraguay amid the pandemic, although the bill was not passed.

This week, Foreign Minister Euclides Acevedo said on television that US Secretary of State Antony Blinken had encouraged the President of Paraguay to stay with Taiwan. But Paraguay must ask its allies “proof of their loveSaid Mr. Acevedo.

After the arrival of COVID-19 in the region, China did in a timely manner, strategic contributions, Cynthia Sanborn, professor at the University of the Pacific in Peru, writes in a Wilson Center report. Beijing donated medical supplies and provided rapid sales of ventilators, ambulances, masks and oxygen factories, in addition to $ 1 billion in loans to pay for COVID-19 vaccines.

“As the United States abandoned its role as a world leader in the fight against this pandemic, many Latin American governments have turned to China for help,” notes Dr. Sanborn.

China was already the main trading partner of many South American countries, and these trade ties could grow stronger. There is also the advantage of soft power, which Russia is also seeking, especially as both countries face strong criticism for the crackdown on citizens’ rights at home.

“Nobody [receiving doses] is worried about violations of human rights or democracy in these countries at the moment, ”said Serbin, referring to China and Russia. “What is clear and will be remembered is that they came to help before the United States or the EU. It is the perception of the people. “

But unlike the Soviet Union, Russia today is interested in more than geopolitics, says Jeifets – it seeks new or deeper business opportunities. “He doesn’t just have an ideological position with Latin America. Russia considers [the region] as one of the pillars of a future multipolar world. Latin America is important for its many new voices at the United Nations. It is important for Russia as a place of sale and possibly purchase of goods ”and commodities, he said.

It is also an opportunity to put the tongue out in the United States. Mr Jeifets says he must have irritated the United States that Sputnik V – the Russian vaccine, whose name is reminiscent of Soviet leadership in science – landed and was praised in Mexico before the United States sent them. their own support.

Warning for Washington

It’s a fact that some in Mexico think their government should get more out of it, given how closely it is linked to the United States through labor, the economy, and migration. .

“The United States should see this as a red flag that it is losing influence,” said José María Ramos, a professor at the Mexican Northern Frontier College who studies US-Mexican relations. “He needs to rethink his approach.”

It has long been in Washington’s interest to maintain close working relations with its neighbors – which was clearly demonstrated during the Cold War, when tensions between the former Soviet Union and the United States arose. in many Latin American countries. But the need for support and investment in Latin America has also been highlighted more recently, with the increase in the number of migrants and asylum seekers arriving at the southern border.

Mexico should not hesitate to indicate who has come to help and who has not, adds Dr Ramos. Latin America has struggled throughout the pandemic, totaling some of the highest death rates in the world, and facing dismal economic prospects. Getting support to reopen economies and send children back to school is a priority.

“I think there is a justification for getting closer to [Russia and China]. The pandemic is a critical situation and these countries can be a counterweight to the United States, ”he said. Dr Ramos points out that lending a bigger hand to the region would be an easy diplomatic victory for the United States

The doses are just starting to arrive, and some critics of the agreements doubt that Moscow and Beijing can deliver on everything they have promised. But if they can, the pandemic assistance “will certainly improve Russia-Latin America relations, China-Latin America relations,” Jeifets said. “I wouldn’t say it will worsen relations with the United States, but it will make it more difficult for the United States to reclaim its influence in the region.”

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