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China’s Vaccine Diplomacy: Soft Power Lessons from Latin America

An elderly woman in Sao Paulo, Brazil is inoculated with the Chinese-made Coronavac vaccine against COVID-19. NELSON ALMEIDA / AFP

By Dr. Álvaro Mendez, Co-Director & Senior Associate Fellow, Global South Unit at LSE IDEAS

In early 2021, Beijing launched a diplomatic campaign to promote China’s COVID-19 vaccines with the aim of winning friends and cutting deals in the global South. One region specially targeted by Beijing was Latin America, whose states and peoples were ill-prepared to deal with the crisis, lacking in particular access to any vaccine alternatives.

Latin America is perceived by Beijing as fertile ground to make inroads into, given that China has no historical “dirty laundry” on display, unlike the US that has habitually neglected the region despite its backyard proximity. Beijing needs only to do marginally better than the US to politically leverage its growing influence.

The soft-power offensive featured messages by Xi Jinping tailored to specific countries. They recited China’s generosity and its purported aspiration for a community of common destiny for mankind. Not neglected were grandiose airport ceremonies celebrating the arrival of millions of vaccines, presided over by Chinese diplomats intoning Xi’s message.

The campaign worked, and China came to be perceived very positively, with many locals believing that it was making philanthropic donations of the vaccines when in reality it was selling them to Latin American governments at higher prices in the absence of any competition.

While Beijing has been very secretive about the prices of their vaccines, scholars writing in The Lancet report that Chinese vaccine prices are substantially higher than other alternatives that also boast greater levels of effectiveness. For instance, the reported prize of Sinovac (one of China’s most popular vaccines) is $21 per course (2 doses); while the price tag of Pfizer-BioNTech is only $14 per course (2 doses); the difference is even bigger when compared with  AstraZeneca (Oxford University version) which only costs $5 per course (2 doses).  At the time of writing, Beijing has sold 386 million doses to the region, with 226 million doses delivered, but it has merely donated 2 million. 

Just a few months later and positive perceptions of China had substantially decreased. This did not happen because locals learned that the vaccines had been sold at full price, but because many Latin Americans started questioning their efficacy based on clinical studies and the experiences of those who had taken the vaccine. China has had to deny it, forcing their diplomats and regional publicists to work overtime to shore up the successes initially attained with “vaccine diplomacy”.

Soft power is maintained to the extent that the reputation that inspired trust is vindicated, but this is not easy when your contribution is perceived as inferior to your competitors’.

Regardless of whether or not the community of common destiny is sincerely meant, China’s vaccine diplomacy in Latin America has run up against the hard limitations of soft power: deeds have to match words, particularly in a life-or-death matter like a pandemic. 

Dr. Álvaro Méndez is the co-director of the LSE Global South Unit. He is also a Senior Research Fellow at the LSE, Adjunct Professor of the Institute for Global Public Policy at Fudan University, Visiting Professor of International Relations at Peking University and at Sciences Po, and a former editor of Millennium-Journal of International Studies at the LSE.

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