A series of economic and diplomatic clashes between China and Australia has extended to regional vaccine outreach, with the Pacific country of Papua New Guinea becoming the latest flashpoint.
The two rivals have offered pandemic aid to Papua New Guinea, but China recently accused Australia of “vaccine sabotage” there for trying to denigrate and block the use of China’s Sinopharm vaccine. It’s an allegation that points to the increasingly tense geopolitics of the vast Pacific region, where China and Australia are jockeying for influence.
“This is consistent with a pattern that has emerged over the last couple of years,” said Graeme Smith, a fellow at Australian National University’s Department of Pacific Affairs. “Portraying Australia as not on the side of the Pacific is now part of China’s playbook.”
The rivalry has major consequences for the brewing tension between the U.S. and China. Australia and the U.S. are staunch allies who spent decades building diplomatic and military ties throughout the Pacific.
But in the last 20 years, China has gone from having virtually no presence in the region to being the third-largest aid donor there, along with having significant investment and trade in many countries.
“China’s presence has expanded rapidly, which is completely in line with what is happening everywhere else in the world,” Smith said.
‘Political manipulation and bullying’
With a population of almost 9 million, Papua New Guinea is one of the most culturally diverse countries on the planet, with thousands of distinct communities living across its rugged and remote landscapes.
Like many developing countries, it turned to the international community for assistance with a Covid-19 vaccine rollout, made all the more urgent by a spike in cases starting in March.
China dropped a bombshell last month when the Chinese Communist Party English-language newspaper Global Times accused Australia of “vaccine sabotage.” Australia was “threatening senior officials from welcoming Chinese vaccines,” it claimed.
Afterward, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said Australia was “tak[ing] advantage of vaccine issues to engage in political manipulation, bullying, coercion [and] being callous to the life and health of the people in Papua New Guinea.”
In the weeks since then, Australia has flatly denied the accusations.
“The Australian government rejects these assertions,” Australia’s minister for international development and the Pacific, Zed Seselja, told NBC News.
“Public health is a global shared interest,” Seselja said. “Decisions about vaccine approval and usage are sovereign matters for the countries in which they are used.”
But others in Australia are using far stronger words about the incident.
Jonathan Pryke, the director of the Pacific Islands Program at the Lowy Institute, a think tank, slammed China’s claims, saying the “bluster” was distracting from the reality on the ground.
Australia has sent 28,000 AstraZeneca doses to Papua New Guinea since March, in addition to having contributed to the global vaccine…