Paraguay is desperate to get ahold of enough doses of a Covid-19 vaccine to mitigate an increasingly devastating surge in infections. The wealthier nations of the West continue to hoard vaccine doses, and have been slow in taking steps to make vaccines accessible to lower-income countries. China, however, is more than willing to export doses of its locally-made vaccines, which President Xi Jinping has referred to as a “global public good,” to dozens of nations in need – with some strings attached. This so-called “vaccine diplomacy” is giving China new opportunities to advance its soft power in countries like Paraguay.
Paraguay handled the virus well in the early stages of the pandemic, but since last fall the country has seen a massive spike in cases that has overwhelmed the healthcare system and caused an economic recession that has exacerbated poverty and inequality. Now, Paraguay is among the hardest hit countries in the Americas. In March, public frustration with the government’s handling of the pandemic boiled over, and protestors took to the streets in Asunción calling for the ouster of President Mario Abdo Benítez. In some cases, the demonstrations turned violent. As of April 18th, Paraguay has seen nearly 250,000 cases and 5,177 deaths, according to the World Health Organization.
Paraguay is unique among its South American neighbours in that it is the only one to have official diplomatic relations with Taiwan. Indeed, it is one of only 15 countries worldwide to have relations with the island nation, which China claims as its own territory under the One China Principle. Any country that recognizes Taiwan’s government cannot also have relations with Beijing, excluding that country from the benefits of loans, credits, and investments from the world’s second largest economy.
China is keen to pressure Taiwan’s remaining international allies to change their allegiance. Isolating Taiwan on the world stage is an important part of China’s multi-pronged campaign of economic and political pressure intended to weaken the island and, ultimately, to bring it under Chinese control. And China’s efforts have been increasingly successful. In 2008, Costa Rica severed ties with Taipei and switched its recognition to Beijing instead. In the years that followed, Panama, the Dominican Republic, and El Salvador all did the same. During the pandemic, these countries, including Brazil, have been among those who have received vaccine doses from China. Paraguay is Taiwan’s last South American ally; and as the pandemic rages on and the pressure on President Benítez to take more drastic action increases, Taiwan is at risk of losing this final ally too.
Paraguay and Taiwan have had a strong diplomatic relationship since ties were forged between the two countries in the 1950s, when both were ruled by military dictatorships. Taiwan has been a major contributor to economic development and infrastructure in Paraguay, investing in housing, healthcare, and education, among other things. But Taiwan does not export vaccines, and vaccines are what Paraguay desperately needs now.
China is well aware of this. Euclides Acevedo, Paraguay’s foriegn minister, said that Beijing has shown interest in pursuing a diplomatic relationship with Paraguay. Earlier this month, Taiwan’s foreign minister, Joseph Wu, accused China of engaging in “vaccine diplomacy” in Paraguay, claiming that China was offering millions of doses in an attempt to persuade Paraguay to sever its ties with Taipei. A spokesperson for China’s foreign ministry denied the accusations, emphasizing that everything was “completely aboveboard.”
Mr. Wu stated also that Taiwan is looking to other countries for help securing vaccine doses for Paraguay. But Taiwan is ultimately no match for China’s vast economy, and it seems likely that Paraguay will eventually follow in the footsteps of its neighbours and switch its allegiance to Beijing. If Taiwan is unable to provide Paraguay with the aid it needs, and if Western countries continue to secure most of the Western pharmaceutical companies’ vaccine doses for themselves, turning to China may be Paraguay’s only option.
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