China opened an embassy on a small, remote Pacific island during the pandemic. that's why

China opened an embassy on a small, remote Pacific island during the pandemic. that’s why

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.

Kiribati is the latest example of Beijing’s growing influence in the Pacific, which consists of a series of resource-rich islands that control vital waterways between Asia and America.
The picturesque islands have long been aligned with the United States, which has a large military presence, and allies such as Australia, the region largest donor and security partnerBut in recent years, many have established closer ties with China because of Beijing’s diplomatic and economic work – creating a dividing line for geopolitical tensions.

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

In 2006, then-Prime Minister Wen Jiabao became the highest-ranking Chinese official to visit the Pacific Islands. He pledged 3 billion yuan ($ 424 million) in concessional loans to invest in resource development, agriculture, fisheries and other key industries, signing Beijing’s interest in the region.
Today, Beijing is the second largest donor – only after Australia, according to data compiled by the Lowy Institute, an Australian think tank.

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.

Chinese health experts are giving advice on how to fight the coronavirus video conferencing with his counterparts from the 10 Pacific nations sharing diplomatic relations with Beijing.
In March, China announced donation of $ 1.9 million in cash and medical supplies to countries to help them fight Covid-19. She also sent medical supplies, protective equipment and test kits, according to statements from Chinese embassies in the region.
Chinese medical teams are on site in countries including Samoa, helping local health authorities develop guidelines on how to control the coronavirus. Specialized military vehicles are provided in Fiji.
According to the World Health Organization, the Pacific Ocean has reported 312 cases and 7 deaths, most of which are in the United States in Guam.

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.

China’s Foreign Ministry denies proverb China’s aid to the Pacific is “real” and has “no political affiliation.”

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.

in joint press release after the event, the nations of the Pacific Island praised China for its “open, transparent and responsible approach to taking timely and sound measures to respond and share its experience of containment.”

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

However, Chinese coronavirus aid to the Pacific, paler compared to Australia’s financial support. Last month Canberra said it spends A $ 100 million ($ 69 million) to provide “quick financial support” to 10 countries in the region, with the money being diverted from existing aid programs.
Australia also recently announced that it will broadcast popular television shows such as “Neighbors” and “Masterchef” in seven Pacific states – a move that is widely seen as a soft pressure of force to counter China’s growing influence.

“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.”

This was on the radar of Australia before the pandemic. After taking office in 2018, Prime Minister Scott Morrison launched his “Pacific Stepping Up” initiative, which includes increased foreign aid and the creation of $ 1.5 billion in infrastructure for the region.

Traveling balloon

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.

Why China is challenging Australia to influence the Pacific Islands

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.

Pacific island nations, including Fiji,, Samoa and the Solomon Islands have asked to join the plan.

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.

Coronavirus blockades are putting enormous pressure on the tourism-dependent economies of the Pacific, and Australia and New Zealand are the main source of tourists there. In 2018, the two countries contributed to more than 1 million foreign arrivals in the Pacific, representing 51% of tourist arrivals, according to report from the South Pacific Tourism Organization. For comparison, 124,939 Chinese tourists visited the Pacific Islands in 2018, which is a 10.9% decrease compared to the previous year.

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.

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