By Kalinga Seneviratne
SYDNEY (IDN)—China and Australia have started another battle, this time over the Covid-19 vaccination roll out in the South Pacific. In a lengthy article on July 2, China’s ‘Global Times’ accused Australia of sabotaging China’s Covid-19 vaccination assistance scheme in Papua New Guinea (PNG) by planting “consultants” to manipulate local epidemic policies targeting China, blocking the approval of Chinese vaccine’s emergency use, and threatening senior government officials who were collaborating with China in the vaccine roll-out program.
The ‘Global Times’ said that they have “learned exclusively from sources that Australia has been racking its brain to undermine China’s vaccine cooperation with Pacific Island countries”. It said that though China has provided vaccines to PNG to fight the pandemic in February, under pressure from Australian consultants, the PNG government did not approve its emergency use until May when Australia’s consignment of Covid vaccines arrived.
When the Chinese vaccine arrived the PNG, president had planned to welcome them at the airport, but Australian officials threatened that if he does so, PNG “should bear the consequences of Australia ceasing investments in the country’s roads projects”, claimed the Global Times.
Australia’s Minister for International Development and the Pacific, Zed Seselja told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) that this “was absolutely not the case” and Australia was simply “fulfilling our moral and economic responsibility”. He also added in comments carried by the ABC: “We come to these issues in good faith, and we’ll continue to do things that are in the interests of our region and in the interest of our friends and neighbours, most particularly PNG.”
But, according to the ABC, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin has repeated the claim on July 5, warning Australia to stop interfering in the vaccine cooperation between China and Pacific Island Countries. “Some people in Australia use the vaccine issue to engage in political manipulation and bullying, which is a disregard for the life and health of Papua New Guinea people, goes against the basic humanitarian spirit, seriously interferes with the overall situation of global cooperation against the pandemic,” Wang was quoted as saying by the ABC.
PNG was an Australian colony until 1975, and after independence, PNG was Australia’s biggest foreign aid recipient. Thus, much of PNG’s annual budget was underwritten by Australia, and Australian consultants were placed in strategic government departments and Australian mining companies such as BHP dominated the mining sector in the country rich in mineral resources.
But all this has changed in recent years with China becoming a major investor in PNG. At the end of 2018, China’s investments in PNG were over $100 million with most of it in the transport, real estate, and mineral sectors. In November 2018, President Xi Jinping paid a historic visit to PNG and the two countries launched a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership.
Last year, China and PNG were reported to have signed an MOU to set up a multimillion-dollar “New Daru City’ just 200 km off the northern Australian coast that has triggered alarm bells in Canberra with the Australian media painting it as a new city being built by China at Australia’s doorstep. This city if completed would have a huge seafood processing complex and a seaport, industrial, commercial, and business zones, housing complexes, and a resort.
In an interview with PNG’s “The National” newspaper this week, China’s new ambassador to PNG Zeng Fanhua said that China will be sending more vaccines to PNG to strengthen anti-pandemic cooperation in the region.
“China will continue to share with PNG experience in combating the virus, send more medical supplies, and strengthen exchanges in public health governance and medical technology, to jointly build a global community of health for all,” said Zeng. “China will set up a China-Pacific Island countries emergency supplies reserve and will strengthen cooperation with PNG and other Pacific Islands countries in response to major public health contingencies and natural disasters”.
After it was approved for emergency use by the World Health Organization (WHO), China started its rollout of the Sinopharm vaccine in the South Pacific in May this year, when 50,000 doses were gifted to the Soloman Islands with its Deputy Prime Minister Manasseh Maelanga taking the first jab. The same week, Australia offered 60,000 doses of its locally made AstraZeneca vaccine. China at the time also offered to donate 200,000 doses of Sinopharm to PNG.
Though it is approved for use by WHO, Sinopharm is not being administered in Australia. However, last month, the Australian government said that AstraZeneca is recommended only for those 60 and over because of concerns about its safety for younger receivers. The government also hinted that they may phase out the AstraZeneca vaccine in Australia in favour of the Pfizer product which Australia has ordered in bulk recently.
Cheng Hong, a professor, and director of the Australian Studies Centre at East China Normal University has pounced on this to criticize what she describes as Australia’s “cold war” mentality towards the South Pacific. “Australia has a clear Cold War mentality and is sabotaging China’s cooperation with Pacific Island countries at the cost of the people’s health”, Chen argued in comments published in Global Times, noting that weaponizing the anti-virus fight for political purposes is shameful and Canberra’s “malicious purposes have been fully exposed and witnessed by the international community”.
Pointing out that what Australia has offered to PNG are vaccines that have been restricted for use in Australia, she argued that under this scenario, Australia is “dumping” its stock-piled, unsafe vaccines to other counties in its pacific playground.
Jonathan Pryke, director of the Lowy Institute’s Pacific Islands Program, argues that such accusations levelled at Australia are unfair. “I think, rather, we’re just providing better alternatives than what China is offering to Papua New Guinea,” he told the ABC network, explaining that what Australia is offering is also medical equipment and services to administer the vaccine.
PNG, like all other Pacific Island countries, weathered the first wave of Covid-19 very successfully, but case numbers have skyrocketed almost nine-fold since the beginning of May this year. ABC says that PNG officials have said that they are not concerned about where the vaccines come from—all they are concerned about is protecting their citizens.
The country which has just 9 million people, has officially recorded 17,000 cases and 173 deaths. They have so far administered just under 55,000 jabs, according to official figures. [IDN-InDepthNews – 06 July 2021]
Photo: PNG national airlines downloading Chinese vaccines. Source: Chinese media company CGTN.