Amid Covid-19, China Ups Its Game in Latin America
“Gracias China!!!,” Marcelo Ebrard, the foreign minister of Mexico, posted on Twitter on April 1, along with a photo of the plane that carried 100,000 masks, 50,000 test kits and five ventilators donated from China. Mexico may see as many as 700,000 cases of Covid-19, while the country has a mere 5,500 ventilators. Even though this will without a doubt have an impact on the United States, which shares a 2,000-mile border and robust trade with Mexico, it’s Beijing, not Washington, that is fast-tracking hundreds of ventilators to help the country meet its vulnerability.
In another era, Mr. Ebrard would have expressed gratitude to his neighbor to the north and highlighted the enduring partnership with the United States. But now China is stepping in to fill a void left by President Trump, who has alienated longtime partners and undermined the country’s standing in Latin America and the Caribbean.
This is not the first time that China has lent a helping hand to the region. Following the Great Recession of 2008, China, which financed a global stimulus representing 7 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, buoyed Latin American economies by devouring commodities like oil, timber and metallic minerals.
China is now the second-largest trading partner in the region, and it has surpassed the United States to become the top trading partner of major economies, including Brazil, Chile, Peru and Uruguay. Since 2017, 19 nations in the region have signed on to the Chinese government’s Belt and Road Initiative, a multibillion-dollar network of investment and infrastructure projects. The influx of financing and development assistance has afforded access to critical financing for cash-strapped and heavily indebted governments, which have faced growing public demand for paved roads, modern public transport and improved services.
In addition, some 41 Confucius Institutes have cropped up across Latin America over the past decade, encouraging trans-Pacific cultural ties among students and professors. And since 2016, Beijing has funded the training of hundreds of journalists annually in professional exchanges and internships that bring Latin Americans to China.
The country’s turn toward medical diplomacy amid the Covid-19 pandemic is a natural outgrowth of this budding relationship and a win for a region that has for too long invested far too little in its health infrastructure. As the countries of this hemisphere contend with the mounting public health crisis, the relative silence of the United States is deafening.
Last week the Trump administration halted funding to the World Health Organization and made good on promised budget cuts to the Pan-American Health Organization, a multilateral public health agency designed to prevent and contain communicable disease outbreaks in the Americas.
Likewise, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection provoked the ire of several Caribbean nations when it blocked the export of personal protective equipment and ventilators purchased from U.S. vendors; Haiti, on the other hand, avoided U.S. suppliers altogether and instead negotiated the purchase of $18 million in medical equipment from China. Meanwhile, the USNS Comfort, a U.S. Navy hospital ship and enduring symbol of solidarity with Latin America and the Caribbean, was enlisted to bring relief to New York City’s taxed hospitals yet sits mostly empty on Manhattan’s Pier 90, overwhelmed by red tape instead of patients.
As the United States turns inward to respond to its own coronavirus crisis, it leaves desperate and increasingly unstable nations in our own hemisphere scrambling to secure medical and humanitarian assistance from elsewhere.
In places like Venezuela and Honduras, millions of citizens have fled political instability and violence in recent years, only to find that the Trump administration has all but closed its borders to asylum seekers. The country’s protectionist turn has also seen tariffs imposed on longstanding trade partners in the hemisphere. From Santiago, Chile, to Mexico City and everywhere in between, America’s leadership is being called into question and China is positioning itself to carry the mantle.
Despite mishandling the initial outbreak of the coronavirus, China has sought to redeem its image and to curry favor by helping governments across the world flatten their coronavirus infection curves. Compared with the United States, China has a timing advantage in flooding the globe with pandemic assistance, as the early outbreak in Wuhan and China’s draconian response have permitted the country to restart industries and international commerce.
China’s carefully designed messaging has enhanced its strategic advantage. On April 13, the foreign minister of Argentina applauded China upon receiving a large shipment of much-needed masks, gloves and protective suits. The delivery boxes were emblazoned with the Chinese and Argentine flags and a quote in Spanish about brotherhood from the beloved Argentine poem “El Gaucho Martín Fierro” by José Hernández.
In Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro, who has railed against Chinese designs on South America and whose son infuriated the Chinese government when he blamed China for the pandemic, has now downplayed the divisive rhetoric in a gambit to secure a greater share of China’s soybean and meat import market. Brazilian beef exports to China have already doubled from 2019 to compensate for a disruption in China’s domestic meat supply chains and pending prohibitions on wild animal meat sales in China.
During one of his daily coronavirus briefings early this month, President Trump made the tone-deaf announcement that the United States is increasing military assets in the Caribbean and Eastern Pacific to support the counternarcotics mission. Against a backdrop of great-power competition coupled with a brewing humanitarian crisis, instead of sending Navy destroyers and Coast Guard cutters, the United States should surge humanitarian assistance to our neighbors in the Americas.
If not, the spread of Covid-19 promises to exacerbate human suffering and trigger an even greater migration crisis while leaving the hemisphere more open to Chinese cooperation and ever more wary of American partnership.
Paul Angelo is a fellow for Latin America studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. Rebecca Bill Chavez was deputy assistant secretary of defense for Western Hemisphere affairs under President Barack Obama and is a senior fellow at the Inter-American Dialogue.