Asia & Latin America

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This post is an edited excerpt from “China’s Covid-19 Diplomacy in Latin America and the Caribbean: Motivations and Methods,” an August 2021 report authored by Asia and Latin America Program Director Margaret Myers, and jointly published by the Florida International University Jack D. Gordon Institute for Public Policy and the Inter-America Dialogue.

“Wolf warrior” diplomacy, a term derived from a top-grossing Chinese film franchise of the same name, refers to an aggressive style of diplomacy adopted by Chinese officials in recent years. Sharp-edged messaging from Chinese diplomats featured prominently in China’s global communications in the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic, with examples evident across Latin American and the Caribbean (LAC) —usually generated and circulated by Chinese embassies in the region.

To better understand the nature and extent of China's Covid-related messaging in LAC—including of the "wolf warrior" variety—we examined over 11,000 messages posted by Chinese embassy Twitter accounts amid the pandemic.[i] We found that from February 2020 to March 2021, approximately 1,635 Chinese embassy posts directly referenced Covid-19 and that these Covid-related posts generally fell into five broad categories:

(1) PPE delivery announcements

(2) Vaccine-specific commentary

(3) Tweets conveying positive messages about China’s engagement with the region amid the pandemic, such as noting China’s commitment to cooperation with LAC, Beijing’s effective response to the pandemic, or China’s dedication to addressing the region’s pandemic-related challenges

(4) “Wolf warrior”-type messaging, strongly countering criticism of China or expressing critical views of the United States or other nations’ pandemic responses and outreach.

(5) Other Covid-19 related announcements and messages, including statistics about China’s outbreaks

To identify possible trends in pandemic-era tweets by at least some Chinese embassies, we examined the frequency and timing of the above messaging types in three LAC nations—Brazil, Ecuador, and Grenada.

We found that:

• Promotional tweets from the Chinese embassies in these three countries (Brazil, Ecuador, and Grenada) far exceeded negative or defensive ones, or those that condemned other countries’ practices. But spikes in negative and assertive messaging were nevertheless evident in all three cases.

• Negative tweets were generally posted in response to international criticisms of China or as a reaction to claims made by public figures in LAC nations, for example. They also occasionally followed strongly worded, official statements by high-ranking Chinese diplomats or officials about China’s Covid-19 response, with diplomats echoing Beijing’s key points in their host countries. Chinese diplomats’ most combative rhetoric was also evident at a moment in time (spring-summer 2020) when China’s so-called “wolf warrior” diplomats were reportedly given some leeway to defend China aggressively and even propagate conspiracy theories through media platforms.

Of the three countries studied—Brazil, Ecuador, and Grenada—“wolf warrior”-type messaging appeared most frequently in Brazil. There, spikes in hard-hitting posts, as evident in March 2020 (see Figure 1), mostly followed critical comments made by Brazilian public officials. For example, when Eduardo Bolsonaro, Brazilian federal deputy and son of President Jair Bolsonaro, blamed China and its model of government for the pandemic in a March tweet, the Chinese embassy in Brasilia took to Twitter to suggest the younger Bolsonaro had contracted a “mental virus” during a trip to the United States.

[caption id="attachment_117225" align="alignleft" width="662"]Types of Pandemic-Era Messaging by China's Embassy in Brazil, February 2020 - March 2021 (Source: Chinese Embassy Twitter accounts; author compilation) Figure 1: Types of Pandemic-Era Messaging by China's Embassy in Brazil, February 2020 - March 2021 (Source: Chinese Embassy Twitter accounts; author compilation)[/caption]

The increase in defensive messaging in May 2020 corresponded with a speech by Wang Yi that noted China’s commitment to addressing the pandemic while also referencing U.S. efforts to politicize Covid-19. The embassy tweeted strongly worded snippets from Wang’s address. That month, the Chinese Embassy in Brazil also published op-eds defending China against allegations that Covid-19 originated in a lab in Wuhan and that China was not transparent when handling its domestic outbreak.

Positive and promotional tweets from the Chinese embassy in Ecuador far exceeded negative ones, but spikes in negative and defensive tweets were nevertheless evident in May and June 2020 (see Figure 2). Nearly every day in May and June, Ecuador’s diplomats addressed what they labeled false claims about China’s handling of Covid-19, using the hashtag #LaVerdad. They addressed rumors about Chinese people eating bats, allegations that Wuhan ophthalmologist Li Wenliang had denounced China’s actions and was arrested, reports that China was reopening its wet markets, and claims that the Wuhan Institute of Virology was the source of the virus. Other messaging in May focused on defending the World Health Organization (WHO), following U.S. doubts about its political neutrality. China’s embassy in Ecuador tweeted, “In the face of the virus, those who harass and blackmail the WHO lack a minimum human spirit, and will be rejected by the international community.”

[caption id="attachment_117229" align="alignright" width="625"]Types of Pandemic-Era Messaging by China’s Embassy in Ecuador, February 2020 – March 2021 (Source: Chinese Embassy Twitter accounts; author compilation) Figure 2: Types of Pandemic-Era Messaging by China’s Embassy in Ecuador, February 2020 – March 2021 (Source: Chinese Embassy Twitter accounts; author compilation)[/caption]

A defensive December 2020 post from the Chinese Embassy in Ecuador regarded an official communiqué issued by Ecuador’s Ministry of Foreign Relations and Human Mobility. The communiqué strongly refuted a Global Times claim that the Covid-19 outbreak in Wuhan may have resulted from cold food chain deliveries from Ecuador and other countries. The Chinese Embassy responded with its own communiqué and tweeted the following: “#IMPORTANT | We publish our Official Communiqué on the traceability of Covid-19; since, only scientific research will demonstrate the transmission route of the coronavirus to prevent future risks and ensure global health.”

• In all three countries, China’s Twitter-based condemnations were accompanied by a proportionate increase in positive messaging, with China evidently seeking to balance its more assertive outreach with positive information on Chinese cooperation.

• Efforts to (sometimes forcefully) defend China on Twitter were also evident in other parts of the region. Even in Peru, where bilateral relations are generally strong, Chinese diplomats traded barbs with Mario Vargas Llosa after the Nobel Prize-winning writer published a critical op-ed in El País. In the article, Vargas Llosa suggested the coronavirus had originated in China and noted that a free and democratic society would have handled the crisis differently. The Chinese Embassy in Lima responded on the Chinese social media platform WeChat, reducing Vargas Llosa’s analysis to a “smear” campaign, which, according to the post, reflected “a lack of understanding and serious prejudice against China.” The author’s books were also reportedly removed from major Chinese e-book platforms.

• In other cases, China and allies in LAC have endorsed each other’s critiques of third parties. For example, through English-language media outlets and Twitter, Chinese media and Cuban officials blamed U.S. sanctions for delays in shipments of Chinese supplies to Havana.

• Embassies’ defensive tweets also varied in tone, suggesting that the embassies and ambassadors were afforded a degree of flexibility when delivering messages. The embassy and ambassador collectively issued fewer critical tweets in Grenada, but the embassy’s tone was nevertheless harsher than in Brazil and Ecuador. The Chinese Embassy of Grenada’s defensive messaging in March was mostly aimed at refuting claims of mistreatment of African migrants in Guangzhou (see Figure 3), but diplomats also labeled former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo a politician committed to “slandering diplomacy,” quoting MOFA spokesperson and emblematic wolf warrior Zhao Lijian’s remarks about U.S. efforts to lift restrictions on official contact with Taiwan.

[caption id="attachment_117233" align="alignleft" width="634"]Types of Pandemic-Era Messaging by China’s Embassy in Grenada, February 2020 – March 2021 (Source: Chinese Embassy Twitter accounts; author compilation) Figure 3: Types of Pandemic-Era Messaging by China’s Embassy in Grenada, February 2020 – March 2021 (Source: Chinese Embassy Twitter accounts; author compilation)[/caption]

Ambassador to Grenada Zhao Yongchan’s tweets also used particularly strong language. They read as far more critical than Ambassador Yang Wanming’s in Brazil, for example, de-spite the prevalence of derogatory statements about China in Brazil, often coming from Jair Bolsonaro himself. Ambassador Zhao noted, for instance, that “[t]he West is containing China, awakening China’s memory of enslaving China by imperialists for 100 yrs,” and, in September 2020, that China defeated the pandemic in three months, but the United States was not able to do so after nine. In Ecuador, by contrast, Ambassador Chen Guoyou refrained from tweeting, though Ecuador embassy tweets frequently referenced his public commentary.

• China’s more aggressive posts had tapered off by summer 2020, lending some credence to Bates Gill’s summer 2020 claim that China’s diplomats were reined in as the party under-stood it had overreached with many audiences around the world.[ii] More recently, in a June 2021 speech to the Politburo study session, Xi signaled a possible throttling of wolf warrior-type outbursts, calling on the country’s leaders to engender a “trustworthy, lovable, and respectable” image for China. Xinhua later suggested that the country adopt a “humble” approach in relations with the outside world. The party may very well have noted, as a Yale University study did, that the aggressive messaging associated with wolf warrior diplomacy was not as effective as promotional messaging in moving public opinion on China.

• Whether China’s wolf warrior diplomacy persists in LAC or not, Chinese embassies in the region would now appear committed to delivering a message of solidarity, multilateralism, and cooperation, referencing China’s commitment to Covid-19 collaboration.

[i] Some of China’s embassies already had a presence on Twitter at the onset of the pandemic. Others, including those in Argentina, the Bahamas, Cuba, and Peru set up new Twitter accounts in the early months of the outbreak to communicate key messages directly to local publics.

[ii] Bates Gill, “China’s Global Influence: Post-COVID Prospects for Soft Power,” The Washington Quarterly, Summer 2020.

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This post is an excerpt from “China’s Covid-19 Diplomacy in Latin America and the Caribbean: Motivations and Methods,” an August 2021 report authored by Asia and Latin America Program Director Margaret Myers, and jointly published by the Florida International University Jack D. Gordon Institute for Public Policy and the Inter-America Dialogue.

China’s engagement with Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) during the global pandemic can be divided into two distinct phases. The first was evident from February 2020 to around September 2020 and consisted of sales and donations of medical equipment and other forms of cooperation and assistance, such as advisory services and consultations between medical professionals from China and LAC nations and cooperation on vaccine testing and development. As a manufacturer of much of the world’s personal protective equipment (PPE), China was well-positioned to deliver its supply to LAC and other regions, especially as Covid-19 cases dwindled at home.

Based on a review of 470 announcements of Chinese PPE deliveries, as reported in Chinese, Latin American, and other media sources and Chinese embassy Twitter accounts, the pace of PPE deliveries slowed considerably after summer 2020 (Figure 1), as China focused more extensively on vaccine development and distribution—the second phase in its Covid-19 outreach.

[caption id="attachment_117198" align="alignleft" width="521"]Traditional and Social Media Mentions of China's PPE Deliveries to Latin America and the Caribbean, February 2022 - March 2021 Traditional and Social Media Mentions of China's PPE Deliveries to Latin America and the Caribbean, February 2022 - March 2021[/caption]

Despite an initially slow start in vaccine production and distribution, China reportedly distributed 300 million doses of its three vaccines—Sinovac, Sinopharm, and CanSino—by May 2020, as part of what Chinese President Xi Jinping described at the 2021 Global Health Summit as a “large-scale global humanitarian action.” As of summer 2021, these doses had been sold or donated to 13 LAC countries. As in the distribution of PPE, China was also well positioned to engage in large-scale vaccine dissemination, given sizable Chinese government support for vaccine development and production and an ability to delay mass vaccination at home.

Of course, China’s prominence in the delivery of Covid-19 assistance to the region—whether through PPE or vaccine delivery—was the product of more than just supply-related considerations. The severity of the coronavirus outbreaks in the region shaped some of China’s early engagement, for instance. China’s international vaccine shipment has mostly been based on negotiated contracts with recipient nations, but Chinese actors often funneled medical supplies to those countries most affected by Covid-19. According to the Pontifical University of Chile’s Francisco Urdinez, the number of donations that each country received was, in general, positively associated with mortality rates during the first wave of the pandemic.

In addition to humanitarian motives, which are frequently underscored by Chinese officials and supported at home by the Chinese public,[i] China’s pandemic aid and broader economic outreach have also sought to reinforce and strengthen bilateral ties throughout the region—to ensure, above all, that China emerges from the pandemic with its image generally intact, and to simultaneously advance some of China’s commercial objectives and policy interests, including the political isolation of Taiwan.

Shaping China’s Image

China’s initial “aid blitz,” carried out by Chinese companies, embassies, overseas communities, the Chinese Red Cross, and other actors, occurred at a pivotal moment for global opinion on China and Covid-19. Critical commentary was evident in LAC and international media in the early months of the pandemic, focused on China’s handling of its outbreak in Wuhan. Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa noted in a March 2020 column for Spain’s El País that the virus had originated in China and that China censored at least one of the doctors who had originally detected the virus. French economist and political scientist Guy Sorman suggested in an August 2020 interview with Argentina’s La Nación that “[i]t is ethical and legal to consider the Chinese regime as directly responsible for this pandemic.” Sorman made similar remarks to Chile’s El Mercurio. By April, anti-China banners appeared in Brasilia reading “China Lied, People Died,” and “China Virus,” as reported by the Financial Times.

Amid mounting criticism and accusations, China sought to position itself in LAC and other regions as a responsible actor and proponent of cooperation at a moment of global crisis.

Much of this work fell to China’s embassies, which, in addition to coordinating donations and sales of PPE and vaccines, labored throughout the pandemic to convey approved messages about China’s experience with Covid-19 and its pandemic outreach. This was accomplished through various outlets, including embassy communiqués, television interviews, press conferences, op-eds authored by Chinese ambassadors and published in local media outlets, and Twitter posts. In fact, at the request of Beijing, Chinese embassies in Argentina, the Bahamas, Cuba, and Peru set up new Twitter accounts in the early months of the outbreak to communicate key messages directly to local publics.[ii]

Beginning in early January 2020, several Chinese embassies and ambassadors took to traditional and social media to mostly defend China against damaging allegations. They communicated confidence in China’s handling of the outbreak and underscored China’s commitment to transparency and information sharing. In a February 14, 2020 interview with Estadão, a daily newspaper published in São Paulo, Chinese Ambassador Yang Wanming sought to reassure Brazilian audiences about China’s control of the outbreak, the country’s commitment to cooperation with LAC nations, and China’s “interest in conducting international cooperation in an open, transparent, and responsible manner.” Embassies also tweeted that China was not to blame for the pandemic, and some published articles lamenting the extent of “prejudice” and “ignorance” evident in China-related commentary.

By spring 2020, Chinese embassies were still largely committed to damage control, addressing continued critiques of China’s Covid-19 response (e.g., that China tried to cover up infections or that China’s lockdown in Wuhan violated its citizens’ human rights) and conveying Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA)-produced talking points. China’s Embassy in Ecuador was especially dedicated to this approach, using hashtags like “#LaVerdad” (#TheTruth) when countering specific claims about China and Covid-19. Embassies also emphasized China’s interest in cooperation and friendship, highlighting donations and sales of PPE by Chinese actors. In May, Chinese ambassadors penned op-eds with such titles as “Defeating Covid-19 through Solidarity and Cooperation,” “Solidariedade e cooperação: armas mais poderosas para derrotar a pandemia” (“Solidarity and cooperation: more powerful weapons to defeat the pandemic”) and “Pompeo: El Mentiroso (“Pompeo: The Liar”).

A spike in Caribbean-directed messaging was evident in April 2020, when Chinese embassies addressed allegations by Human Rights Watch and former Barbados diplomat Mohammed Iqbal Degia that the Chinese city of Guangzhou had targeted its African communities, forcibly testing them for Covid-19 and ordering them to self-isolate. Reports also surfaced at the time of evictions of African residents. Chinese embassies in Barbados and Dominica published statements refuting these claims, citing China’s history of cooperation with African nations. Degia’s op-ed on the topic appears to have been removed from the NationNews web site where it was first published, likely at the request of the Barbados government, as one interviewee for the full “China’s Covid-19 Diplomacy in Latin America and the Caribbean: Motivations and Methods” report noted.[iii]

By summer 2020, embassy messaging expanded to address international criticism of China’s human rights record, whether regarding Hong Kong, Xinjiang, or China’s domestic response to Covid-19. On Xinjiang, op-eds and statements by embassy officials deflected international condemnations of China’s treatment of the Uighur population, instead pointing to social issues in the United States. Some noted a lack of protection in the United States of ethnic minorities’ human rights and fundamental freedoms, referencing death rates among Black Americans during the pandemic.

On the topic of human rights, Chinese embassies in Argentina, Antigua and Barbuda, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Grenada, Guyana, Peru, Suriname, and Uruguay used their websites, social media, and interviews to comment on China’s rights-related achievements, employing language from a July 2020 MOFA article titled “What’s False and What’s True on China-related Human Rights Matters.” In August 2020, another article, “Fact check: Pompeo’s fact-twisting China speech versus the truth,” was circulated by Chinese embassies in LAC. Both articles argued that China’s successes in containing Covid-19 demonstrated its unfailing commitment to human rights.

Foreign Minister Wang Yi further promoted China’s “people-centered” definition of human rights during the 46th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council in 2021. There he noted that a government’s focus on “people’s sense of gains, happiness and security” is the “the fundamental pursuit of human rights.” According to this formulation, as The Diplomat editor Shannon Tiezzi has noted, economic prosperity tops the list of priorities, and the concept of “happiness” replaces more concrete markers like racial and gender equality or freedom of religion. Security is also elevated to a human rights priority.

Isolating Taiwan

The political isolation of Taiwan was yet another objective of China’s COVID-19 outreach over the past year and a half, as China sought to curry favor with Taiwan’s allies and reinforce ties to countries such as Guyana, where Taiwan had made diplomatic overtures. China’s efforts in this area marked a clearer-than-ever departure from its foreign policy of noninterference in LAC domestic affairs.

In most cases, China’s pandemic-era influence on Taiwan’s allies has been indirect. Throughout the pandemic, Chinese PPE donations and vaccine sales were directed nearly exclusively to countries with diplomatic ties to China. This led some in the region to question their political allegiances. According to the Financial Times, Carlos Alberto Madero, Honduras’s chief cabinet coordinator, said that access to vaccines was “much more urgent than anything else,” including a continued alliance with Taiwan. Others sought a “diplomatic bridge” to Beijing—a prerequisite for vaccine sales. In May 2021, Honduras reported that the government of El Salvador might assist in vaccine negotiations with China. A Paraguayan industry group known as the Agricultural Coordinator requested help from Beijing in mid-April through a series of letters to China’s MOFA and the Chinese ambassador in Brazil.

In other cases, vaccines have seemingly been used to reward or discourage government decision-making on Taiwan and other matters. The timing of a vaccine donation to Guyana led some to speculate that the Caribbean nation was rewarded with the doses after deciding to close a new Taiwanese commercial office. And in Brazil, China reportedly halted the shipment of raw materials necessary for the São Paulo-based Butantan Institute to produce China’s CoronaVac vaccine after Brazilian President Bolsonaro suggested that China disseminated COVID-19 as a tactic of biological warfare.

Commercial Objectives

Many Chinese companies, from large tech conglomerates to smaller-scale construction firms, assisted LAC during the pandemic. For the many companies involved in China’s international outreach, the pandemic, while problematic for their global operations, was also an opportunity to showcase their capabilities to foreign audiences or demonstrate their commitment to the countries and communities where they work. Indeed, instances of PPE donations by Chinese companies were most extensive in those countries where Chinese companies maintain a far-reaching presence, where ties need reinforcement, or where Chinese firms have sought to establish a more prominent footprint.

[caption id="attachment_117202" align="alignright" width="344"]Examples of Chinese Actors Involved in China's Covid-19 Diplomacy in LAC Examples of Chinese Actors Involved in China's Covid-19 Diplomacy in LAC[/caption]

Donation announcements by Chinese companies were most evident in Panama, which arguably falls into all three categories. Panama has been a priority destination for Chinese companies for more than a decade, having been featured in Chinese Ministry of Commerce “going-out” guides since 2010. It received renewed attention from Chinese investors after cutting ties with Taiwan in 2017, but some Chinese projects have been suspended under the Laurentino Cortizo government—the product of enhanced legal scrutiny, problems associated with project contracts, and the adverse effects of the pandemic, according to China-Latin America relations expert Evan Ellis. Amid the pandemic and persistent political uncertainties, Chinese companies have underscored their commitment to the country through donations and other forms of assistance. Huawei alone made at least seven different donations of various sizes to Panamanian government offices and communities between March and September 2020.

Argentina was also a primary recipient of Chinese company donations, at a moment when China-Argentina economic and political ties are strengthening. Several new projects have been announced in Argentina under the Alberto Fernández government, including China Machinery Engineering Corporation’s investment in a train car production facility in Santa Fe, Argentina; the approval of Phases 4 and 5 of its Cauchari Solar project; and talk of a China-financed gas pipeline running from the Vaca Muerta shale field in Argentina to Brazil. With current and future operations in mind, the following Chinese companies donated to Argentina early in the pandemic: construction firm Gezhouba, which is partially responsible for building the Condor Cliff and Barrancosa dams in Santa Cruz; Bank of China and ICBC; Huawei; China Railway Engineering Corporation and China Railway Construction Corporation, which are upgrading the Belgrano Cargas and other rail networks; and Alibaba.

For the many companies involved in China’s international outreach, the pandemic, while problematic for their global operations, was also an opportunity to showcase their capabilities to foreign audiences or demonstrate their commitment to the countries and communities where they work.

Chinese companies were also active in PPE distribution in Brazil, where China’s economic interests are extensive and growing. Firms such as Gree Electric, which sells electronic appliances in the country; Trip.com, a Chinese travel website; and the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, which provided finance for the Port San Luis expansion and Jupia and Ilha Solteira acquisitions, made donations to Brazil amid the pandemic. In the case of Brazil, Chinese companies may see value in highlighting their commitment to Brazilian communities at a moment of relative volatility in China-Brazil relations. Some donations to Brazil through sister cities/provinces networks made explicit reference to the countries’ strained relations—they arrived in boxes labeled “[w]e stay together through storms and tensions.”

For China’s tech firms, the pandemic also pro-vided an opportunity to showcase new biomedical technologies and artificial intelligence-enabled diagnostic capabilities. LAC and other developing regions are critical markets for China’s major tech and telecommunications companies, especially as Huawei and others face obstacles in Australia, Europe, and the United States. Huawei, in particular, has sought to diversify its offerings in LAC, including in the area of medical technologies, in anticipation of possible obstacles to 5G equipment sales. During the pandemic, Huawei donated computerized imaging solutions to the Dominican Republic, and Huawei and Huiying Medical Technology Co., Ltd. offered AI-enabled auxiliary diagnostic systems to hospitals in Ecuador. The former vice-president of Ecuador, Otto Sonnenholzner, thanked Huawei on Twitter in March 2020, noting that Ecuador had become the first country in Latin America to have AI-enabled diagnostics in two local hospitals.

The pandemic has also amounted to something of an international debut for China’s pharmaceutical companies.

The pandemic has also amounted to something of an international debut for China’s pharmaceutical companies. In addition to co-producing some vaccines and treatments and holding trials in LAC and other regions, China’s three vaccine manufacturers became household names in LAC as Chinese vaccines were administered across the region. Regional views of China’s biomedical capability will largely be deter-mined by the efficacy of its vaccines, but the linkages developed between Chinese and Latin American pharmaceutical companies will be productive beyond the pandemic. Vaccine trials and research were conducted with Fundación Huésped in Argentina and the Butantan Institute in Brazil. In addition, Interferon Alfa-2B, an antiviral treatment produced by Cuban-Chinese joint venture Changheber, was among the medicines selected by the Chinese National Health Commission to fight Covid-19 infections in China.

[i] Observation based on author review of reader commentary in Chinese-language Weibo posts about China’s vaccine diplomacy. The vast majority of comments by Chinese netizens reflect a positive view of China’s overseas outreach. Numerous posts included the phrase, “大国担当 ,” or “acting like a great power.”

[ii] Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Grenada, Mexico, Suriname, and Venezuela had all established Twitter accounts pre-pandemic.

[iii] Interview with author on the condition of anonymity, July 2021.

 

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Mexico's Foreign Secretary Marcelo Ebrard noted last month that Mexico and China will possibly strengthen their “strategic partnership” in 2021, probably implying greater bilateral cooperation within the context of the two countries’ existing “comprehensive strategic partnership” (“全面战略伙伴关系”), whether on vaccine provision, infrastructure development, or in any number of other areas.China's Strategic Partnerships

But, assuming China confirms Ebrard's comments, this announcement could also suggest a possible upgrade for Mexico in China’s hierarchy of diplomatic partnerships, perhaps reflecting China’s more energetic engagement with Mexico under the Andrés Manuel López Obrador administration.

China has demonstrated considerable interest in Mexican infrastructure projects in just the past two years, with particular attention paid to two of the main features of López Obrador’s infrastructure plan—the Dos Bocas refinery and the Tren Maya. China announced a $600 million investment in the former in January 2020 and China Communications Construction Company (CCCC) is working as a part of an international consortium to build a section of the latter. China’s State Power Investment Corporation (SPIC) also recently purchased Mexico’s largest independent renewable energy company, Zuma Energía, as part of an apparent, broader interest among Chinese power companies in expanding their presence in Latin American hydropower and renewable energy.

At present, though, Mexico is already among the countries in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) that have comprehensive strategic partnerships—the highest classification yet applied to Latin American and Caribbean nations by China’s Foreign Ministry. Six other countries, all in South America, have received the same rank. They are Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, Peru, and Venezuela. Brazil’s stands out from the rest as the first-ever “strategic partnership” to be established by China, back in November 1993, followed by Ukraine in 1995.

Bolivia and Uruguay assume a slightly lower position in China’s rankings, as “strategic partners” (“战略伙伴”) and China’s relations with Guyana and Antigua & Barbuda are labeled “friendly cooperative” (“友好合作”) relations and “friendly” (“友好”) relations, respectively. Most of Central America and the rest of the Caribbean (excluding those countries that recognize Taiwan) are simply listed on the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs web site as having established diplomatic relations with China.

At least three LAC countries have special designations not shared by any other country in the world. The first is Cuba, which is frequently described as “good brother, good comrade, good friend” (“好兄弟、好同志、好朋友”), reflecting the historical and political basis for the China-Cuba bilateral dynamic. Trinidad & Tobago maintains a “comprehensive cooperative partnership of mutual respect, equality, mutual benefit, and common development” (“相互尊重、平等互利、共同发展的全面合作伙伴”) relationship with China, which evolved from a “mutually beneficial development friendly cooperative" (“互利发展的友好合作关系”) relationship. Although Jamaica also enjoyed the unique designation of “friendly partnership for common development” (“ 共同发展的友好伙伴关”)in the past, the two countries established a strategic partnership (“战略伙伴关系”) in 2019, bringing the China-Jamaica relationship in line with China's global system of strategic partnerships. Suriname’s “strategic partnership of cooperation” (“ 战略合作伙伴关系”) is shared only by South Korea and Bangladesh.

What these relationships mean in practice isn’t entirely clear. Because official documentation does little to clarify their significance, most analyses of China’s diplomatic classifications refer to comments made by then-Premier Wen Jiabao during a 2004 speech in Brussels. There Wen suggested that the term “comprehensive” refers to cooperation in the economic, technological, cultural, and political fields. He also noted that a “comprehensive” relationship is both bilateral and multilateral in nature, meaning that countries with this designation may work together with China in dealing with multilateral issues. A “comprehensive” relationship is also multilayered, including both government-to-government cooperation and people-to-people diplomacy, Wen said.

The term “strategic,” as Quan Li and Min Ye (2019) describe it, based on Wen’s remarks, means “cooperation between the two countries not only has an overall importance to the bilateral relationship but also is stable and long-term, overcoming the differences in ideology and political systems.” And “partnership,” according to Wen, implies the two countries cooperate on the basis of mutual respect, mutual trust, and equality.

More broadly, China’s partnership system is thought to reflect Beijing’s historical rejection of security-based alliances. As Avery Goldstein (2005) noted, China has focused on “building stable relations without targeting any third party.” Strüver (2017) explained that China’s partnerships stand “in stark contrast to ‘threat-driven’ forms of alignment such as military alliances.” The result is a much broader and more flexible system of partnerships that, according to Strüver, prioritizes the establishment and maintenance of ongoing relations, and not necessarily the achievement of immediate and tangible results or rule-based cooperation.

Indeed, there is little clarity on how and even whether these frameworks are operationalized. Are partnerships a precondition to establishing high-level bilateral commissions of the sort that China and Brazil maintain? Does a certain level of partnership imply more direct communication between armed forces? Does development cooperation imply that China will provide a degree of development assistance? Does a partnership upgrade lead to enhanced economic or political activity or is it the result of stronger ties?

Assuming Premier Wen’s description still applies, a country such as Mexico, that has a “comprehensive strategic partnership” with China would be expected to cooperate in a range of fields and at both the bilateral and multilateral levels, casting aside ideological or political differences to achieve shared goals. This is indeed happening to some degree, as China supports certain elements of the Mexican government’s development plans. But the Mexico-China relationship has also had its share of ups and downs—including the Dragon Mart and Querétaro Railway controversies—since the “comprehensive strategic partnership” was forged in 2013.

It’s hard to imagine that moving Mexico to a next-level strategic partnership, or else assigning Mexico its own label, along the lines of Cuba’s or Trinidad & Tobago’s, would considerably alter the trajectory of the bilateral relationship. The two sides are already working together more extensively, labels aside. At the same time, diverse factors, such as longstanding China-Mexico export competition and Mexico’s much more extensive—if sometimes strained—political and economic ties to the US, will presumably preclude major shifts in the bilateral relationship.

But China’s diplomatic hierarchy is still an important signaling tool. In Mexico, an upgrade to the China-Mexico relationship would be interpreted as a purposeful, if nebulous, gesture, highlighting China’s interest in enhanced engagement. Any upgrade to Mexico’s diplomatic status would also be a clear signal to the US that China is committed to strengthening its ties in the region, even with the US’s closest partners.

See the below list from Quan Li and Min Ye (2019) noting the range of partnership terminology used by China internationally:

伙伴系名

Partnership title

全面战略协作伙伴关系

Comprehensive Strategic Partnership of Coordination

全天候战略合作伙伴关系

All-weather Strategic Cooperative Partnership

全方位战略伙伴关系

All-round Strategic Partnership

全球全面战略伙伴关系

Global Comprehensive Strategic Partnership for the 21st Century

全面战略合作伙伴关系

Comprehensive Strategic Cooperative Partnership

全面战略伙伴关系

Comprehensive Strategic Partnership

互惠战略伙伴关系

Mutually Beneficial Strategic Partnership

创新战略伙伴关系

Innovative Strategic Partnership

战略协作伙伴关系

Strategic Partnership of Coordination

战略合作伙伴关系

Strategic Cooperative Partnership

战略伙伴关系

Strategic Partnership

战略合作关系/战略性合作关系

Strategic Cooperation

更加紧密的发展伙伴关系

Closer Developmental Partnership

全方位友好合作伙伴关系

All-round Partnership of Friendship and Cooperation

全面友好合作伙伴关系

Comprehensive Partnership of Friendship and Cooperation

全方位合作伙伴关系

All-round Partnership of Cooperation

全面合作伙伴关系

Comprehensive Cooperative Partnership/Comprehensive Partnership of Cooperation

重要合作伙伴关系

Important Cooperative Partnership

友好合作伙伴关系

Partnership of Friendship and Cooperation/Friendly and Cooperative Partnership/Friendly Cooperative Partnership

共同发展的友好伙伴关系

Partnership of Friendship/Friendly Partnership for Common Development

长期友好合作伙伴关系

Long-term Friendly and Cooperative partnership

全面合作关系

Comprehensive Cooperation

睦邻互信伙伴关系

Partnership of Good Neighborliness and Mutual Trust

新型伙伴关系

New Partnership

RELATED LINKS: 

Going Local: An Assessment of China’s Administrative-Level Activity in Latin America and the Caribbean

China’s Quiet Play for Latin America

 

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