China to the rescue: 'Mask diplomacy' aims to win allies in Latin America

China to the rescue: 'Mask diplomacy' aims to win allies in Latin America

As the coronavirus crisis threatens to overwhelm health care systems and devastate fragile economies across Latin America, China — where the deadly pathogen first emerged — now wants the region to see it as the hero, not the villain, in the fight against the pandemic.

Whether China’s plan will work is another story.

With the United States and European countries preoccupied with their domestic efforts to curb the outbreak, Beijing has supplied Latin American nations with planeloads of medical supplies, teams of experts and scores of photo ops for overwhelmed local leaders.

Mexico, which will need to wait until the end of April to acquire 1,000 ventilators that President Trump set aside Friday, was set to receive 200 such machines as early as this week as part of what Chinese state media billed as an “air bridge” between the countries.

Argentina took delivery Saturday of a 14-ton shipment of surgical masks, early-detection kits, biohazard suits, thermometers, gloves and goggles flown in on a 60-hour trip from Shanghai. The supplies arrived on the heels of a donation of similar size.

As Argentina awaited 1,500 ventilators promised by China, Foreign Minister Felipe Sola was happily tweeting out pictures of flag-adorned shipping boxes along with a translation of the accompanying slogan: “Brothers must be united.”

In Europe and much of the developing world, China’s charm offensive has sparked sharply divergent responses. Some countries have welcomed the aid and praised the giver, while others have complained about sometimes substandard equipment, heavy-handed propaganda and Beijing’s failure to offer substantial help in one critical area: debt relief for countries that have borrowed heavily from China in recent years.