This article was produced in partnership with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
WASHINGTON – China, already competing for influence in this hemisphere through a multibillion-dollar network of investment and infrastructure, is likely to beat the United States in its own backyard with vaccine diplomacy, according to the commander-in-chief of the army for Central and South America.
Admiral Craig S. Faller, who heads the Army’s Southern Command, acknowledged Wednesday that China is actively making “agreements to try to deploy and use the vaccine” around the world to stop the coronavirus, such as United States, Through Government The Operation Warp Speed program “seeks first and foremost to take care of the United States.
Although no country has an approved vaccine, China has started vaccinating citizens as part of what appears to be an emergency use strategy. Its developer Sinovac Biotech has collaborated with Brazil on advanced trials. Another Chinese developer, CanSino Biologics, has an ongoing clinical trial in Mexico and has signed an early purchase agreement with that country’s government to provide 35 million doses of a single-dose vaccine.
“Listen, we are in a global pandemic and here I have taken the approach that any help is legitimate help is welcome help,” Admiral Faller said in a video meeting with members of the Defense Writers Group. “So I’m not passing judgment on this. If the vaccine works, people have to do what they have to do as a nation. “
One of the primary objectives of the Southern Command is to provide humanitarian assistance, including healthcare, and disaster relief overseas to the region to strengthen relationships and avert a destabilizing migrant crisis. During this year’s hurricane season, which just ended, U.S. forces participated in rescue operations and provided relief supplies to Central America, while U.S. military medics tested troops for the coronavirus during their deployment and return.
From his headquarters in Doral, Florida, Admiral Faller monitors the activities of “external state actors” in the region and seeks to counter their influence in what he calls a “global competition of great powers” that is “alive and well. in the hemisphere ”. “
Of particular concern are China’s port deals around the Panama Canal, he said, “a significant global choke point” in the event of “a major global conflict,” as well as Beijing’s efforts to seek deep-water port agreements in places like Mexico and the Bahamas.
China has continued to expand its presence in the region with loans across Latin America, Chinese government-sponsored projects that include a space mission control station in Patagonia and, recently, shipments of supplies. medical services to help deal with the pandemic.
It has become a major trading partner in the region through its Belt and Road initiative – but the admiral also claimed on Wednesday that China had tried to “undermine local elections, pay mayors” and come up with deals that undermined American private industry through unfair competition. .
The Southern Command has detected one of the positive aspects of the pandemic, in the field of drug trafficking. The Pentagon has participated for years with the United States Coast Guard and other allied nations in efforts to ban drug trafficking.
“There are less drugs in circulation,” Admiral Faller said. “We saw an impact of Covid on the amount of drug trafficking and activity as borders closed and precursor chemicals became more difficult.”
At the same time, he said, the US military and partner countries have “stepped up” their cooperation in efforts to ban the flow of drugs to the United States.