China is using “mask and vaccine diplomacy” to undercut U.S. influence in Latin America by offering coronavirus pandemic support tied to a push for Chinese telecommunications investments in the region, Southern Command chief Adm. Craig Faller warned Congress on Tuesday.
Southern Command estimates that China has so far provided more than $120 million in COVID-19 relief and supplies to Latin America.
China is now moving into a new phase, leveraging its vaccine supply to persuade countries where the United States has provided military and diplomatic support to allow Chinese state-owned telecommunications firm Huawei into their markets, Faller said at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing.
“We have seen China move in with a particularly heavy-handed mask and vaccine diplomacy,” Faller told the lawmakers. “They are using the vaccines to leverage deals for their IT, for their 5G.”
Brazil, which had previously opposed Huawei entering its market, in January agreed to allow the Chinese firm to bid on building a 5G network there. The United States sees Brazil as a critical partner in its strategy on the Venezuelan crisis.
The United States has designated Huawei as a threat to U.S. national security and has blocked firms from using Huawei equipment to prevent China from exploiting U.S. telecommunications networks.
“It’s well known what a deal with Huawei does to your sovereignty,” Faller said. “It provides a direct path to China.”
If Huawei increases control of telecommunications in key Latin American countries, it could hamper U.S. ability to securely operate in that region.
“Where China has stepped ahead of us is vaccine delivery,” Faller told reporters at the Pentagon after his congressional testimony. “That’s in the tens of millions, in numbers of vaccines they have provided.”
The United States will not provide vaccines to other countries until all Americans have access, however it has provided more than $230 million in protective equipment for the pandemic to the region, Faller said.
“Once we’ve taken care of the United States, [let’s] be first with a concerted plan to take care of our neighborhood,” Faller told Congress. “The next phase is going to be in vaccines and long-term recovery. We’ve got to be as aggressive and forward leaning in that phase, I would say particularly in this hemisphere, because the proximity here matters to the security of the United States.”
The pandemic has created a greater opportunity for China as Latin America faces the hardest economic situation it has seen in decades. The International Monetary Fund estimates most Latin American economies have shrunk at least 7.4% and that Latin America will be the region in the world that takes the longest to recover.
Faller said he saw some of the impact firsthand in September during a trip to Honduras, El Salvador, Costa Rica and Guatemala.
As he met with military counterparts there, he was struck by the compounding impact the pandemic has had on countries already hit by two devastating hurricanes in 2020 and a surge in transnational crime.
“The hollow look in the eyes of our partners — they are struggling to fill their gas tanks and find food for their security forces because of the stress the pandemic and the violence has placed,” Faller said. “And this creates real opportunities for our competitors who are more than willing to step into that violent sauce and take advantage of it for their own interests.”
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