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In race for vaccines, US neighbors see chance to play Washington and Beijing against each other

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China El Salvador Sinovac CoronaVac Covid-19 coronavirus vaccine
Workers unload the first batch of Sinovac vaccines in San Luis Talpa, El Salvador, March 28, 2021. MARVIN RECINOS/AFP via Getty Images
  • Latin America has been hit hard by COVID-19, and leaders there are rushing to vaccinate their populations.

  • Broader competition between the US, China, and Russia is seen as influencing vaccine distribution.

  • Some leaders in Latin America appear to be trying to use that competition to advance their own interests.

  • See more stories on Insider's business page.

Latin America has been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic, and as countries there scramble to vaccinate residents, two leaders are looking to gain geopolitical leverage.

Presidents Juan Orlando Hernández of Honduras and Nayib Bukele of El Salvador have both been criticized by US officials and civil society - Hernández over drug-trafficking connections and Bukele for what is seen as an ongoing power grab.

While the US government has said it will continue to work with both governments, their leaders appear to be trying to fend off further scrutiny.

To that end, Hernández said on May 11 that he was considering setting up a trade office with China to get more vaccines, following Beijing's suggestion that he pursue a "diplomatic bridge" to secure more doses.

Such a move would be a dramatic shift, as Honduras is one of the few countries that still officially recognizes Taiwan, which China has sought to further isolate in recent years by peeling away its allies.

honduras
Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández at a campaign rally, November 12, 2017. Jorge Cabrera/Reuters

Hernández's comments came a month after Bukele said Beijing would donate 150,000 Sinovac vaccines on top of the 2 million El Salvador had already purchased.

Two shipments of Chinese vaccines arrived in El Salvador in April, and Bukele has given thousands of vaccines to towns in Honduras.

Efforts by leaders in the region to get vaccines reflect their "desperation" to stanch the pandemic more so than ideological leanings, Benjamin Gedan, deputy director of the Latin American program at the Wilson Center, told Insider in an email.

But Hernández and Bukele in particular seem to be seeking other benefits.

After Hernández's brother's conviction in the US on drug charges, Hernández's "flirtation with China is a transparent attempt to persuade the Biden administration and federal prosecutors to stand down," Gedan, a former director for South America on the National Security Council, tweeted last week.

In El Salvador, "Bukele's recent overtures to Beijing coincide with a deterioration of relations with the US ... due to Washington's criticism over Bukele's increasing authoritarianism," said Michael Paarlberg, a professor and expert in Latin American politics at Virginia Commonwealth University.

"The Sinovac deal is a publicity boost for Bukele," Paarlberg told Insider. "Bukele also wishes to signal to the US that El Salvador has other options."

China's aid to those countries indicates that "the balance is tilting in China's favor," Global Times, a tabloid run by the Chinese Communist Party, said last week.

'China takes the US seriously'

China El Salvador Covid-19 coronavirus vaccine
Chinese Ambassador to El Salvador Ou Jianhong, left, and El Salvador Minister of Health Francisco Alabi in San Salvador, March 28, 2021. Xinhua/Alexander Pena via Getty Images

China is supplying vaccines to at least 12 countries in the region - including 85% of those received by Chile, 82% by El Salvador, and 75% by both Brazil and Uruguay - R. Evan Ellis, Latin America research professor at the US Army War College, told the House Foreign Affairs Committee this month.

Argentina "regularly sends planes to Beijing to collect doses," and Colombia, a longtime US ally, has ordered 7.5 million doses, Gedan said.

Governments in the region "will gladly" accept the US's vaccines as its distribution effort expands, Gedan told Insider.

"Even so, China's 'vaccine diplomacy' is increasing Beijing's influence at the US's expense," Gedan said, adding that those deliveries "do more than burnish" China's standing as it faces criticism elsewhere.

Beijing has sought to use that favorable sentiment to advance its interests.

After promises of Chinese vaccines, Brazil and the Dominican Republic reversed commitments to keep Chinese firm Huawei out of their 5G telecommunications networks, Ellis said.

Beijing also tried to use vaccines to pull away another Taiwanese ally, Paraguay, which Taiwan thwarted by helping Paraguay get vaccines elsewhere. (Hernández said he asked Taipei to press the US for help finding more vaccines for Honduras.)

USAID Honduras Covid-19 coronavirus aid
Honduran troops with diagnostic testing kits donated by the US Agency for International Development and the International Organization for Migration, in Tegucigalpa, April 29, 2020. ORLANDO SIERRA/AFP via Getty Images

Juan Gonzalez, senior director for the Western Hemisphere on the National Security Council, said Monday that leaders in the region had asked if the US would "see negatively" their acceptance of Russian and Chinese vaccines.

"The answer is no because we need to vaccinate these populations, full stop, no conditions," Gonzalez said in response to a question from Insider at Florida International University's Western Hemisphere security conference.

The US has been criticized for not coordinating with Russia and China on vaccine distribution, but Gonzalez said Monday that the Biden administration was "concerned with" their attempts to use vaccines to pressure countries, citing the case of Paraguay.

"Frankly, that's not what our citizens want from us. So we don't see it as a competition, because when the United States pivots ... in terms of our plans to share vaccines, the United States is going to be the global leader in the pandemic response, and we're not going to ask for anything in return for those vaccines," Gonzalez added.

Despite Chinese inroads in Latin America, Honduras and El Salvador likely won't be able to replace Washington with Beijing. In addition to geographic proximity, both have deep political, economic, and cultural ties to the US.

Bukele's predecessor already recognized Beijing over Taipei, and while Chinese investment there has benefited some well-connected elites, many of those projects have stalled, some due to US objections, Paarlberg said.

"Even if Bukele cares more about China than the US, China cares more about the US than it does El Salvador. And when the US puts up serious resistance ... China takes the US seriously," Paarlberg told Insider.

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