COVID vaccine rollout in Pacific emerges as latest Australia-China diplomatic battleground

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China and Australia have found another battleground for their deepening diplomatic standoff – the Pacific Islands’ pandemic response, with Canberra hitting back at Beijing’s claims it is derailing the rollout of Chinese vaccines in Papua New Guinea.

“We support Papua New Guinea making sovereign decisions,” Australia’s minister for the Pacific, Zed Seselja, said in an interview with CNN on Wednesday.

That’s not the way Beijing sees it.

In early July, Chinese state-run tabloid Global Times accused Australia of sabotaging China’s vaccine rollout in the Pacific.

At a press conference earlier this month, a spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry slammed Australia for “undermining vaccine cooperation” in the region.

For years, the countries have jockeyed for influence in the Pacific, a region of 14 island nations and territories with a population of about 10 million people with strategic advantages for both sides.

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.

Workers packing boxes containing the vials of AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine. Credit: Rafiq Maqbool/AP

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.

For China, the region represents an opportunity to expand its influence.

Several of the islands are among the last nations in the world to recognize Taipei as a diplomatic partner over Beijing.

The Chinese government would like to lure them away from Taiwan as part of its long-running strategy to isolate the island.

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