The opening of a Chinese embassy in Kiribati, a nation of 33 atolls and reef islands in the Central Pacific, may seem strange – especially during a pandemic. Only three other countries have embassies in the island nation: Australia, New Zealand and Cuba.
Yet Kiribati is a place of growing geopolitical competition.
Last September, she passed diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing. China considers the self-governing island of Taiwan a breakaway province and, since 2016, has poached seven of its diplomatic allies.
And this week, Kiribati’s pro-Beijing president, Tanetti Maamau, who led the country’s diplomatic change, won the election carefully after a campaign for closer ties with China, defeating an opposition rival who was sympathetic to Taiwan.
As Canberra and Beijing pour aid into the region, the possibility of a balloon trip between the Pacific Islands and Australia has given the rivalry a new dimension.
Deepening the scope
For the Pacific Islands, which have a combined GDP of about $ 33.77 billion – less than 1% of China’s total GDP, China was a crucial partner during the pandemic.
The islands have so far largely protected the coronavirus thanks to remoteness and early blocking measures. But local communities could face disastrous consequences if the virus were to be affected due to insufficient medical care and a lack of testing capacity, experts warned.
“China’s involvement in the Pacific today is driven by opportunism. They are trying to gain as much influence as possible,” said Jonathan Prieck, director of the Pacific Island Program at the Lowee Institute.
But stronger connections can be useful in times of need.
In May, when China faced a global response to its early response to the coronavirus epidemic, it turned to the Pacific for support. Days before the World Health Assembly in May, ministers from 10 Pacific countries joined in a video conference of Covid-19, convened by China.
The meeting ended with a brilliant confirmation of the coronavirus reaction in China.
“This is what the Chinese government needs,” said Dengua Zhang of the Australian National University in Canberra.
The Trump administration has repeatedly blamed China for the pandemic, while Canberra infuriated Beijing with its call for an independent investigation into the origins of the virus.
Australia is stepping
“The Australian government has clearly acknowledged that there can be no room for creating a vacuum (be it) strong power, soft power, the relief front or the medical front,” Prake said.
“They cannot withdraw from any vacuum for fear that China may fill it.”
One way the pandemic could affect geopolitical rivalry in the Pacific is by selectively easing travel restrictions between nations.
As Australia and New Zealand bring the coronavirus under control, their politicians are talking about opening borders between them, creating a travel corridor – or “travel bubble” – between the two countries.
Both countries successfully flattened their coronavirus curves by the end of April, although Australia now faces a jump in cases in the state of Victoria.
So far, there is no publicly reported plan between the Pacific Islands and China for such a travel bubble. At the moment, China seems to be focusing on its neighboring borders – its southern province of Guangdong has discussed with Hong Kong and Macao a travel balloon.
Some Australian politicians are also eager to see a trans-Pacific bubble.
Dave Sharma, a ruling Liberal MP, wrote in an Australian newspaper last month that the inclusion would help Canberra’s Pacific neighbors economically and ensure that “they continue to see Australia as a partner of choice.”
“Strategic competition in the Pacific is alive and well. China and other countries are striving to play a bigger role. Influence and the footprint in our immediate neighborhood are important,” he wrote.
While geopolitics is not the main motivator for a travel bubble – rather the key driver is the drive to return to economies, Prake said – lifting travel restrictions between Australia and the Pacific Islands will provide some geopolitical gains for Canberra and Wellington.
“Somehow, Australia and New Zealand would become gatekeepers for access to the Pacific Ocean as the pandemic continues around the world. So that, of course, will give Australia and New Zealand additional geopolitical advantages,” he said.