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Canberra has hit back at Beijing’s claims it is derailing the rollout of Chinese vaccines in Papua New Guinea (PNG), the most-populous Pacific nation. “We support Papua New Guinea making sovereign decisions,” Australia’s minister for the Pacific, Zed Seselja, said in an interview with CNN on Wednesday.
The islands’ location between US and Asia makes them key military staging grounds and the potential site of future defense installations for either Australia or China.
Australia has longstanding economic and cultural ties with the Pacific, and it is crucial to the country’s national security to ensure the Chinese government doesn’t gain a large foothold in the region.
Now all that political maneuvering has turned PNG’s Covid-19 outbreak into another area of competition as Australia and China present themselves as benevolent partners.
Is there any truth to the accusations?
PNG avoided the worst of the pandemic in 2020, but this year its cases have skyrocketed, bringing its total to more than 17,000 reported cases and 179 deaths.
Yet PNG didn’t approve the vaccines until May. That delay, according to the Global Times, was due to Australian consultants “working in the shadows” in PNG to “manipulate” local policies.
He also noted that Australia had been contributing a range of health care expertise to PNG long before the pandemic.
“Our commitment to the Pacific is longstanding and comprehensive,” Seselja said. “Any suggestion we do it in response to other countries is not well founded if you look at decades of consistent wide-ranging support.”
Joanne Wallis, a professor in international security at the University of Adelaide, said it wouldn’t have been unreasonable for Australian health experts to act as consultants to provide information to PNG on the efficacy of different vaccines.
Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and PNG’s Covid-19 National Pandemic Response office did not reply to CNN’s request for comment.
The reality for the delay in approving the Chinese vaccines was likely a simple case of timing.
Jonathan Pryke, director of the Lowy Institute’s Pacific Islands Program, said it was “terrible optics” that Australia wasn’t rolling out AstraZeneca to everyone domestically, but was happy to give it to Pacific countries. “The silver lining of that is that (Pacific Islands) are getting much more vaccine much earlier than they otherwise would have been, if these restrictions weren’t in place in Australia.”
Seselja dismissed the idea that AstraZeneca was not good enough for Australians. “It is good enough — millions of Australians are receiving it,” he said.
How are Australia and China’s overtures playing in PNG?
PNG has a bigger problem than a diplomatic spat on its shores — it is struggling to get vaccines into people’s arms.
That’s partly because there’s huge vaccine hesitancy in the country, said Justine McMahon, PNG country director for humanitarian non-profit CARE International, who is based in the country.
Some health workers have refused to take it over efficacy concerns, and some mothers have missed measles vaccine appointments because they feared their babies would be given a Covid-19 shot at the same time, she said.
“If they’re faced with these kinds of challenges with the vaccine supply that they’ve already got access to, why bother even trying to incorporate one new vaccine into the mix?” said Pryke, from the Lowy Institute.
There are good reasons Australia wants to supply the region with vaccines.
Australia is separated from PNG by just a few hundred miles. Although travel is restricted between the two countries, officials fear cases will spill over the border. Australia — which controlled PNG for decades — also sees itself as having a responsibility to help out.
“Helping PNG is a no-brainer for Australia, and that was the case long before China even had a major presence within the country, but it’s even greater with that element layered on top of all the other complex dynamics of the relationship,” Pryke said.
China is one of the world’s biggest vaccine donors, but in the Pacific, it doesn’t have that title.
Covid-19 had been a great opportunity to build influence with not a lot of money. But during the pandemic, China has been “missing in action” and its efforts had been “tokenistic,” Pryke said.
“So they’ve got to show that they’re actually doing something,” he said. “They’ve found themselves quite on the back foot in regards to influence-building now we’re 18 months into this crisis.”
For now, China hasn’t made any accusations about Australian influence in those countries. But as a MOFA spokesperson told CNN: “As for whether the relevant countries are under pressure from Australia in the process of approving the use of Chinese vaccines, the Australian side should know what they have said and done.”
What does this mean for the Pacific?
In a statement to CNN, MOFA said it hoped the Australian side would “reflect on its own mistakes, earnestly change its course, and do more to protect the health and well-being of the people of the island countries and promote international cooperation in the fight against the virus.”
Seselja said Australia took the “rule-based order” in the Pacific seriously, which was why it had invested in its defense force and partnered with like-minded countries who want democratic principles there to flourish. And he said he didn’t spend time worrying about the tensions between Australia and China playing out in the Pacific.
“We obviously seek to have positive relations with all of our nations including China, that’s our fervent hope, but we do it in a way that it’s consistent with Australian values. We stand up for our democratic ideals, we stand up for Australian sovereignty, whilst continuing to seek to have strong trading and other relationships,” he said.
McMahon, from CARE International, said debate over vaccine diplomacy isn’t helpful — rather than politicking, countries should be working to push the idea that the only way out of the crisis is vaccination.
But there’s a possibility that Beijing’s refocusing on the region could mean more financial support, giving Pacific island countries more negotiating power as China and Australia compete for influence.
Wallis, from the University of Adelaide, said Pacific people had been managing the presence of other countries for a long time.
“Australia and its ally the United States might not always like the decisions that Pacific Island states make,” she said. “But Pacific Island states are being neither deceived or duped when it comes to attempts to influence them.”