The opening of a Chinese embassy in Kiribati, a nation of 33 atolls and reef islands in the central Pacific, may have seemed strange – especially during a pandemic. Only three other countries have embassies in the island nation: Australia, New Zealand and Cuba.
However, Kiribati is the site of growing geopolitical competition.
Last September, diplomatic recognition was changed by Taipei in Beijing. China considers the self-governing island of Taiwan a divided province and has been chasing seven of its diplomatic allies since 2016.
And this week, Kiribati President Beijing President Taneti Maamau – who oversaw the country’s diplomatic shift – carefully won the election following a campaign for closer ties with China, defeating an opposition opponent who was sympathetic to Taiwan.
Now, as Camera and Beijing are helping the region, the possibility of a travel bubble between the Pacific and Australian islands has given the competition a new dimension.
Deepening the range
For the Pacific Islands, which have a combined GDP of about $ 33.77 billion – less than 1% of China’s total GDP – China has been a key partner during the pandemic.
The islands have so far largely prevented the coronae thanks to their remote action and the first locking measures. However, local communities could face devastating consequences if the virus were to strike, due to inadequate health care and a lack of testing capacity, experts warned.
“China’s commitment to the Pacific today is due to opportunism, they are trying to gain as much influence as possible,” said Jonathan Pryke, director of the Pacific island program at the Lowy Institute.
However, stronger ties can be helpful in times of need.
In May, when China faced a global backlash over the early handling of the coronavirus epidemic, it turned to the Pacific for support. A few days before the World Health Assembly meeting in May, ministers from 10 Pacific island nations attended a teleconference. at Covid-19 convened by China.
The meeting ended with a brilliant confirmation of China’s corona response.
“That’s what the Chinese government needed,” said Dengua Zang of the Australian National University in Canberra.
The Trump administration has repeatedly accused China of the pandemic, while Canberra has outraged Beijing with its request for an independent investigation into the origin of the virus.
Australia is coming in
“The Australian government has made it clear that there can be no room for a vacuum, whether it is the hard force, the soft force, the aid front or the medical front,” Pryke said.
“They can’t leave the void because they’re afraid China will fill it.”
One way the pandemic could affect geopolitical rivalries in the Pacific is through selective easing of travel restrictions between countries.
As Australia and New Zealand are under the control of the corona, politicians talk about opening the borders between them, creating a travel corridor – or “travel bubble” – between the two nations.
Both countries had successfully balanced corona curves by the end of April, although Australia is now facing an increase in cases in the state of Victoria.
So far, no plan has been made public between the Pacific islands and China for a similar travel bubble. For now, China seems to be focusing on its neighboring borders – the southern province of Guangdong has discussed with Hong Kong and Macao a travel bubble.
Some Australian politicians are also willing to see a trans-Pacific bubble.
Dave Sharma, a member of the ruling Liberal Party, wrote in an Australian newspaper last month that the inclusion would help Cumberra’s neighbors in the Pacific financially and ensure that “they continue to see Australia as their first choice partner.”
“Strategic competition in the Pacific is alive and well, with China and other countries seeking to play a bigger role. It is important that our influence and footprint in our immediate neighborhood is visible,” he wrote.
While geopolitics is not the primary incentive for a travel bubble – rather, the key lever is the drive to bring economies back to the forefront, Pryke said – lifting travel restrictions between Australia and the Pacific Islands will secure some geopolitical gains. for Canberra and Wellington.
“In a way, Australia and New Zealand would become guardians of access to the Pacific, while the pandemic continues around the world. That, of course, will give Australia and New Zealand further geopolitical advantages,” he said.