In Brief

China boosting leverage over countries with targeted vaccine diplomacy

Brazilian U-turn on Huawei hints at political cost of coronavirus jabs

A sudden change of heart by the Brazilian government has given an insight into a quiet game of vaccine diplomacy being played by China.

Brazil has long been looking to build a 5G infrastructure, but until recently chose to “shun” Chinese tech giant Huawei, describing the company as “a dangerous extension of China’s surveillance system”, The New York Times (NYT) reports.

However, the pandemic appears to have put an end to Brazil’s hawkish stance on Chinese investment, after the government’s communications minister last month “met with Huawei executives at their headquarters and made a very unusual request of a telecommunication company”, the paper adds.

“I took advantage of the trip to ask for vaccines, which is what everyone is clamouring for”, the minister, Fábio Faria, said. Two weeks later, the government, which is currently facing a huge spike in Covid cases, announced that Huawei would be allowed to compete in the auction to win its 5G contract.

Brazil is not the only country to have received China’s CoronaVac jab, produced by Beijing-based biopharmaceutical company Sinovac. China is also “donating thousands of its vaccines to low- and middle-income countries” in Africa, Quartz reports, “in what is viewed as a soft-power push to bolster its global influence”.

China has so far donated over 96 million doses of its vaccine to 39 countries and has pledged to send doses to 19 African nations, according to independent consultancy Bridge Consulting

Foreign Minister Wang Yi said earlier this month that “to help African countries fight the pandemic and bring the economy back on track is a top priority for China-Africa cooperation at the current stage”.

Such is the concern over China deepening its influence through vaccine diplomacy that US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has hit out at efforts to “tie the distribution or access to vaccines to politics or to geopolitics”. On Wednesday he told Japanese media in an online roundtable that “various countries, including China, have been engaged in so-called vaccine diplomacy.”

The vaccines are being delivered with “strings attached”, he added, explaining “that certain requests are made, and maybe stronger requests are made of countries in order to receive the vaccines”.

Israel has also been using vaccination donations to strengthen its foreign ties and win new allies among countries with which it hopes to have warmer relations. And Boris Johnson has also politicised the UK’s vaccine campaign, writing in The Times yesterday that the Oxford jab “shows why we and the world need Britain to be global”.

China’s “growing leverage” is playing out in the speed of vaccine rollouts across Latin America, the NYT adds. It is the “dominant supplier of vaccines in Chile, which has mounted the most aggressive inoculation campaign” in South America, and is “shipping millions of doses to Mexico, Peru, Colombia, Ecuador and Bolivia”.

Meanwhile, Paraguay is running short of doses while its Covid cases rise as it is one of the few countries to have maintained foreign relations with Taiwan, which China considers to be its territory, and so has “struggled to gain access to Chinese vaccines”, the paper adds.

Blinken may be right to be concerned about China’s successful use of vaccine diplomacy. But the reality, the NYT says, is that the world needs vaccines and “China is benefiting”.

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