PRC’s Renewed Soft Power Strategy and U.S. Global Health Security Efforts in Latin America

Image Source: Observer Research Foundation, Diplomacy Gone Amiss.

When Joseph Nye coined the term “soft power” in 1990, he could not have known how strongly the People’s Republic of China (PRC) would buy into the concept; China’s leader Hu Jintao declared in 2007 that the PRC needed to invest more into soft power. Since that declaration, the PRC has been working towards that goal. Even though the United States and the PRC both employ soft power to “make others want what they want,” both states have different goals when wielding soft power. For the United States, soft power is a tool to persuade foreign publics to favor a democratic and neoliberal-driven economy. The PRC, however, employs soft power to increase positive public opinion of the CCP while promoting its economic interests. The most recent manifestation of differences between U.S. and PRC soft power occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic and their vaccine deployment strategy.

Previous to the COVID-19 pandemic, Central and South America’s engagement with the PRC had been limited primarily to economic relations. However, the public health crisis created a demand for COVID-19 vaccines that the United States was slow to fulfill. This slow reaction allowed the PRC to execute an early soft power campaign: vaccine diplomacy. Vaccine diplomacy is a tool where one state supplies vaccines to another in exchange for improved diplomatic relations. This can be done via bilateral contractual agreements between states, or by donating doses to states in need. At the onset of the pandemic, the World Health Organization sought to do the latter and distribute COVID-19 vaccines to countries in need by establishing the COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access program (COVAX). 

The COVAX Advanced Market Commitment (AMC) mechanism promised to cover the cost of the vaccine to qualifying low-income countries, but only 10 countries in Central and South America qualified at the time. The PRC leveraged the gap left by the AMC mechanism by launching its vaccine diplomacy initiative, which prioritized bilateral purchasing agreements, called “contracted agreements,” and donations of vaccines to Central and South American states. Meanwhile, the PRC meticulously calculated which countries would receive doses, prioritizing states aligned with PRC interests rather than a need-based alternative. For example, one political consideration was the potential-recipient country’s relationship with Taiwan; states like El Salvador and Panama vaccine shipments after deciding to cut ties with Taipei. 

How successful were the PRC’s vaccine diplomacy efforts? 

The PRC’s Sinovac, Sinopharm, and CanSino vaccines are responsible for roughly 400 million doses in Central and South American countries. However, vaccine distribution proved difficult for the PRC at the onset of the pandemic. Concerns over the low efficacy rate of the doses marked the early days of the PRC’s vaccine distribution efforts. In October 2020, Brazil’s president at the time, Jair Bolsonaro, announced that the federal government would not buy the PRC’s Sinovac vaccine, saying, “the Brazilian people will not be anyone’s guinea pig.” 

As the pandemic tore through Latin America, Chinese leader Xi Jinping took a holistic approach to diplomacy, reportedly calling leaders in Latin America when they were sick with COVID-19 and using the calls as an opportunity to work on vaccine shipment agreements. Beijing noted that states such as Paraguay and Nicaragua, which recognized the government of Taipei in the past, had a relationship with Taiwan and presented a barrier to receiving vaccine shipments from the PRC. 

Paraguay’s Foreign Minister, Euclides Acevedo, admitted that the PRC issued a quid pro quo by offering to partner with Paraguay in fighting COVID-19 if Paraguay would break ties with Taipei. While Paraguay did not do so, the same cannot be said for Nicaragua, which used to have close ties with Taiwan up until December 2021. One week after cutting ties with Taipei in favor of Beijing, Nicaragua received 200,000 vaccines from the PRC. The deal was a win for the PRC – not only did the PRC gain a new economic partner, but the move jeopardized Taiwan’s standing. 

In addition to working closely with governments, the PRC also attempted to partner with private entities to increase individuals’ public opinion of China. One example is the PRC’s donation of 50,000 doses of the Sinovac vaccine to CONMEBOL, the organization that governs soccer in South America. The contribution to CONMEBOL was celebrated by many. In the Copa America final, “Sinovac” was advertised on the screens, not-so-subtly connecting China’s relationship to CONMEBOL as a sponsorship to the beloved soccer organization.  

What should the United States learn from the PRC’s soft power tactics? 

The United States and the PRC exercise soft power in different ways. The United States focuses on promoting global liberal values, and the PRC prioritizes positive public perceptions of the CCP. The decline of U.S. soft power under the Trump Administration’s U.S.-centric policies has left the United States in a weakened position. To remain competitive in its promotion of global health security, the United States should assess its shortcomings and seek opportunities to better serve our partners in the southern hemisphere. 

Lesson 1: Pursue a leadership role early in a crisis 

A substantial aspect of the PRC’s vaccine diplomacy campaign is how quickly the state presented itself as a leader in the fight against COVID-19. Even before a vaccine was developed, President Xi started looking to collaborate on vaccine trials with states such as Brazil. This prompt action directly juxtaposes the Trump administration’s isolationist policies of the time. 

Lesson 2: Winning hearts and minds

The get-well calls to leaders and strategic donation of vaccines to a beloved regional sport left Latin Americans with a positive perspective of the PRC at a time when the United States was letting its neighbors suffer. In the future, the United States should look toward the success of the PRC’s bilateral relationship with states and organizations within the region. 

In future crises, U.S. aid earmarked for Latin America should not include drastic stipulations on policy like the PRC’s move against Taiwan. Instead, aid that aims to improve infrastructure, regional health, or economics should be distributed bilaterally and at a local level so that individuals in the region regain the ability to see the United States as a long-term benefactor and not just a fair-weather friend. 

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