China has dealt with the costs after the extent of its coronavirus mistakes became clear. Even the assertive Communist Party “mask diplomacy” has not managed to recover its tarnished image. While mistrust of China is at record highs in many countries, the United States has to be ready for the next charm offensive, especially in the developing world, with an effort to secure the soft power rewards and strategic benefits with the distribution of viable coronavirus vaccines. Nowhere are the stakes greater than in the Western Hemisphere with Latin American and Caribbean.
It is hard to overstate the damage from the pandemic in Latin America and the Caribbean. Political instability, pervasive inequality, and weaker health care systems have exacerbated the number of deaths. Despite comprising about 8 percent of the world population, the region accounts for a third of the global coronavirus cases and deaths. The International Monetary Fund estimates the economy here could contract by 8 percent, while countries such as Mexico could decline by double digits, and poverty could spike to the levels not seen since the early 2000s. Such dire tableau illustrates the stakes for viable coronavirus vaccines, as well as a successful inoculation strategy, for so much of Latin America and the Caribbean.
Faced with glaring United States inaction, Argentina, Mexico, and Peru have turned to China and signed deals to purchase millions of doses of coronavirus vaccines. The United States ceased distribution of medical supplies to the Western Hemisphere, but China continued to do so and has run 300 coronavirus assistance transactions for Latin America. The void left by the United States has given China its strategic opening and helps its image as a public health leader. A successful campaign for the distribution of coronavirus vaccines is the kind of technical issue which lends itself to bolster the reputation of the United States.
China is girding itself for a battle in the developing world as it subsidizes some firms to offer its coronavirus vaccines for free or at highly reduced prices. In Latin America and the Caribbean, President Xi Jinping pledged $1 billion with loans to finance access to the coronavirus vaccines. China could shed its reputation of predatory lending with the developing world with a successful finance program. Some Latin American countries could even discover that deference toward the Communist Party and Xi himself could earn special treatment for the distribution of coronavirus vaccines. Such concessions could harm our national security goals.
The distribution of coronavirus vaccines would test the strength of critical logistics. This is very notable because the United States seeks to extricate supply chains, including for medical supplies, from China and move them to the Western Hemisphere. But the United States could find some willing and capable partners all across the region. An alliance for the distribution of vaccines for the region would also be favorable because Latin America has undertaken major public health campaigns in the past.
Given the news that Pfizer and Moderna ran clinical trials that show their coronavirus vaccines to be over 90 percent effective. This brings them a step closer to regulatory approval so a distribution campaign helmed by the United States is a plausible option in the near future. Development is only the first move since effective distribution is the real challenge here. But the United States has the means to start such an effort.
Such action dovetails with the next administration and its focus to contain the pandemic at home. The crises in Latin America have a tendency to go north. Hoarding coronavirus vaccines would worsen the public health and economic problems in our shared region, and also slow the pace at which Latin America can bounce back from its decline. Indeed, Joe Biden needs to realize that the United States will be unable to “build back better” until the entire region can finally bring an end to the pandemic.
A better alliance with Latin America is perhaps the lowest hanging fruit in foreign policy. There are openings to accrue soft power, and a successful campaign for the distribution of coronavirus vaccines is a clear impactful opportunity. The next administration has to take some fast action, but if it manages to set forth a credible plan for Latin America and the Caribbean, it could hinder China from an easy victory in our continent.
Ryan Berg is a research fellow with American Enterprise Institute. Allison Schwartz is a communications assistant at American Enterprise Institute.