The Biden administration plans to send Covid-19 vaccines in priority to Latin America over concerns that China is using access to jab supplies to convince countries to drop diplomatic recognition of Taiwan.
“Latin America will be one of the priorities,” a senior US official told the Financial Times about the 80m vaccines that Joe Biden has pledged to give other nations before the end of June.
The pledge comes as Honduras, one of only 15 nations that recognises Taipei over Beijing, said it might have to shift stance to get access to Chinese vaccine supplies. China claims that Taiwan is part of its territory.
Carlos Alberto Madero, Honduras’s chief cabinet co-ordinator, who is akin to a prime minister, said that while the country wanted to avoid breaking longstanding ties with Taipei, access to vaccines was “much more urgent than anything else”.
“This puts us in a very difficult situation,” Madero said. “The Honduran people start to see that China is helping its allies and we start to ask ourselves why ours are not helping us.”
The central American nation has been unable to buy adequate stocks of Covid-19 jabs and has suffered delays in deliveries on signed contracts. It has inoculated less than 1 per cent of its 9m people.
Madero said the situation could “definitely lead to changes in foreign policy”, in a reference to a possible switch of diplomatic recognition away from Taipei. He said Honduras had approached Washington for vaccines and had been promised help, but had yet to receive any.
The US official said the Biden administration would help Honduras and other countries, but did not provide a timeline.
“The bottom line is help is on the way and we will actually follow through, whereas the Chinese have often made promises but not followed through . . . We cannot blame other countries for accepting vaccines. They have a responsibility to vaccinate but nothing China gives is for free.”
Washington has intensified its diplomatic engagement with Paraguay after China offered to provide the nation with vaccines in exchange for dropping its diplomatic recognition of Taiwan.
Antony Blinken, US secretary of state, called the president of Paraguay, a move an American official said was aimed at providing public support for Taiwan’s allies.
On Wednesday, the state department said it was “deeply concerned” about the challenges faced by Honduras.
“Beijing . . . are exploiting [the pandemic] to coerce vulnerable nations,” Marco Rubio, the top Republican on the Senate intelligence committee, said. “The Biden administration is doing nothing about it.”
Rubio and Bob Menendez, Democratic chair of the Senate foreign relations committee, warned in a letter last week that rival nations would “continue efforts to use their less effective vaccines as leverage to coerce Latin America and Caribbean nations in support of a diplomatic agenda inimical to ours”.
Over the past five years, China has used its economic power to persuade a third of Taiwan’s allies, including Panama in 2017 and El Salvador and the Dominican Republic in 2018, to switch their diplomatic recognition.
The US, which has traditionally had strong influence in the region, has sought to discourage Taiwan’s Latin American allies from changing sides. When El Salvador cut ties with Taipei in 2018, Washington said it would re-evaluate its relationship with San Salvador.
Members of the “Quad” — a security and diplomatic grouping of the US, Japan, India and Australia — agreed in March to create a plan to provide developing countries with jabs to counter China’s vaccine diplomacy. But some legislators want the Biden team to increase its focus on America’s southern neighbours.
China has shipped more than half of the 144m doses of vaccines delivered to Latin America’s 10 most populous countries, according to FT analysis.
El Salvador’s access to Chinese vaccines has helped it inoculate 16 per cent of its population. Honduras, meanwhile, has failed to secure a supply contract with Chinese vaccines.
“We think that geopolitics plays a role with the vaccines,” Madero said. “Of course, you start to see that the countries which have more relations with China have more access to vaccines.”
Juan Orlando Hernández, president of Honduras, has raised the possibility of opening a trade office in China to try to improve relations.
Taiwan’s foreign ministry has accused China of “using vaccines to exchange political and diplomatic benefits for countries that are in urgent need”, which it described as “a shameful act”.
Taipei is also scrambling to secure vaccines for its own people amid its first big outbreak of Covid-19.
Additional reporting by Katrina Manson in Washington