As poor nations struggle to get their hands on COVID-19 vaccines, a thinly-populated South American country finds its chances linked to its unexpected role in growing tensions between the US and China.
Paraguay’s 63-year-old alliance with Taiwan — forged when both were run by authoritarian governments — means the government cannot directly buy from China’s vaccine makers that have supplied other Latin American nations.
Officials say they have been approached to switch to Beijing to get the doses.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken telephoned Paraguayan President Mario Abdo Benitez to stiffen his spine against such a shift.
That led Paraguayan Minister of Foreign Affairs Euclides Acevedo to speak frankly this week to Washington and Taipei.
“Mr Blinken has been very firm, telling Abdo: ‘Look, your allies are Taiwan and us,’” Acevedo said on television. “But we ask these strategic allies for proof of their love. Before holding hands, you have to at least take us to the movies.”
“Countries with which we don’t have diplomatic relations” are actively courting other nations with vaccines, Acevedo said.
Chinese “President Xi Jinping (習近平) has a lot of interest in a tie-up with us,” he added.
Asked to respond, a US Department of State spokesperson said the US is working with Paraguay and like-minded partners to support pandemic response efforts, and praised Taiwan as a leading democracy and partner.
The Paraguay China Chamber of Industry and Commerce (CPCIC) is one of dozens of intermediaries that have approached the beleaguered Abdo Benitez administration offering to broker a vaccine deal.
While some intermediaries have asked for multimillion-dollar down payments, the chamber — acting on behalf of a local pharmaceutical company — wants health authorities to sign paperwork with China so the firms can start negotiations.
“We basically said: ‘If Paraguay’s government wants to fill out the forms, we could submit them for approval by Sinovac or Sinopharm,’” chamber president Charles Tang said of a letter CPCIC sent to the Paraguayan Ministry of Public Health and Social Welfare last week.
The government responded with questions, the chamber said.
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