Taiwan on Wednesday accused China of trying to lure Paraguay into switching diplomatic recognition in exchange for coronavirus vaccines as the South American nation struggles with soaring infections.
Paraguay is one of only 15 countries that officially recognize Taipei over Beijing, which claims self-ruled Taiwan as part of its territory.
Beijing has ramped up pressure on Taiwan since the 2016 election of President Tsai Ing-wen because she rejects its stance that the island is part of China.
It has poached seven of Taiwan’s official allies since then – including three in Latin America: Panama, El Salvador and the Dominican Republic.
On Wednesday Taiwan’s foreign minister said China was trying to woo Paraguay with the promise of badly needed vaccines.
“This is a period of time when we see Chinese ‘vaccine diplomacy’ has been flexing its muscles in many parts of world, especially in central and south America,” Joseph Wu told reporters.
“The Chinese government was very active in saying … if the Paraguay government is willing to sever diplomatic ties with Taiwan, they will be able to get quite a few million vaccine doses from China,” he added.
“It generated a lot of pressure on the government of President Mario Abdo Benítez and this also generated a lot of pressure on us to find the necessary support,” Wu said, adding that Paraguay’s political opposition was “very willing to link up with China.”
Paraguay has reported 224,000 coronavirus infections and 4,500 deaths in a population of seven million.
Fatalities have risen alarmingly in recent weeks during a fresh wave of infections that have hammered its healthcare system.
There have been violent protests over the government’s response as well as an ultimately failed attempt to impeach Abdo Benítez.
Wu said Taiwan had reached out to countries including Japan, the United States and India on the issue.
India’s government said Paraguay received 100,000 doses of its Covaxin vaccine on March 26.
Paraguay has also received 36,000 doses from AstraZeneca, 4,000 doses of the Russian Sputnik V vaccine, and 20,000 of the Chinese Coronavac donated by Chile.
Abdo Benítez has said he hopes to secure enough vaccinations by the middle of the year. He blamed the lack of doses on delays in Covax, a mechanism supported by the World Health Organization to widen access to vaccines.
Washington is also looking at ways to help countries struggling to secure enough vaccine supply, Wu said.
China has been a crucial source of vaccines for many poorer nations especially with wealthier countries snapping up supplies of Western-made doses.
It has previously denied using vaccines as a diplomatic pressure device.
Taiwan – population 23 million – has been hailed as a global success story in containing the virus, with around 1,050 confirmed cases and 10 deaths.
But it has struggled to secure vaccines and has so far only received 117,000 doses of AstraZeneca purchased from the manufacturer and another 199,200 doses of the same vaccine via Covax.