Mask Diplomacy

Margaret Myers speaks on Two the Point

On May 5, 2020, Margaret Myers, director of the Asia & Latin America Program at the Inter-American Dialogue, shared her insights on perceptions of China’s coronavirus assistance to Latin America with Benjamin Gedan, host of Two the Point, a Woodrow Wilson Center podcast. 


“We’ve seen a really remarkable surge in the delivery of both donations and sales of equipment across the entire region in Latin America. This includes anywhere from Argentina, which has been a primary recipient of some of these materials, to Venezuela, where a delegation arrived a number of weeks ago to help provide medical services and consult on medical treatment, to even some assistance for countries that are diplomatically aligned with Taiwan, for example in the Northern Triangle.”

“China has insisted that this is all purely altruistic. That it’s humanitarian relief—an effort to help countries that are desperately in need in the midst of a global pandemic. And I do believe there is some interest in actually helping fellow countries, especially really important partner nations.”

“But [mask diplomacy] also achieves other objectives. For example, this is all part of a concerted effort to shape the narrative on China and Covid-19—trying to ensure that China does not emerge from this in a position where it is viewed negatively or as a possible source of the virus. China has been very explicit in noting that we do not quite know where the virus maybe came from. They’ve also been very interested in ensuring that countries in Latin America and the rest of the world are in agreement that China has approached its own response to Covid-19 in an open, transparent, and responsible way. And we see a lot of that messaging being delivered in the Latin American region, too, along with these donations of equipment.”

“And…this is an opportunity for China to introduce some of its novel technologies, especially in the medical space, in medical industries. And China’s telecommunications companies and medical research companies are doing a lot. As the first country to enter this crisis and the first to emerge from it, China is in a really optimal position to develop some hopefully effective treatments for Covid-19. This is an opportunity for China to both showcase these treatments and to potentially create a market for them.”

“I do think that these donations—this so-called “mask diplomacy”—is having a really overall positive effect on China’s image. And there is a broad sense in the region—not among all, of course, but among a lot—that China has taken something of a leadership role in the global response to Covid-19, especially in comparison, at this point, to the United States.”

“That said—and I think this is a very important caveat—China has taken a really rather strong and aggressive approach to countering what it perceives to be misinformation about China and Covid-19….[T]hese sorts of heavy-handed approaches, to the extent that they continue, I do believe will have a negative effect on views of China, at least among a portion of the population in Latin America.”



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