The opening of the Chinese embassy in Kiribati, a country of 33 atolls and reef islands in the Central Pacific, might seem strange – especially during an epidemic. Three other countries have embassies in the island states: Australia, New Zealand and Cuba.
However, Kiribati is where growing geopolitical competition is found.
Last September, diplomatic recognition passed from Taipei to Beijing. China considers the self-governing Taiwan island to be a separatist province, and has been boiling seven of its diplomatic allies since 2016.
And this week, pro-Beijing President Taneti Maamau of Kiribati, who oversaw the country’s diplomatic pass, won a closely-watched election after defeating an opponent who sympathized with Taiwan after campaigning for closer ties with China.
Now, while Canberra and Beijing are helping the region, the possibility of a travel bubble between the Pacific Islands and Australia has brought a new dimension to competition.
For the Pacific Islands, whose total GDP is about $ 33.77 billion – less than 1% of China’s total GDP – China has been a key partner during the pandemic.
The islands have largely removed the coronavirus so far, thanks to their distance and early locking measures. However, experts warned that local communities could face devastating consequences if the virus is hit due to insufficient healthcare and lack of testing capacity.
“China’s involvement in the Pacific today is driven by 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 bonds can be useful in times of need.
In May, when China faced a global response to dealing with the coronavirus outbreak, she returned to the Pacific for support. Ministers from 10 Pacific Island countries attended the video conference days before the World Health Assembly meeting in May Collected by Covid-19 in China.
The meeting ended with a shining confirmation of China’s coronavirus response.
“The Chinese government needed it,” said Denghua Zhang of the Australian National University in Canberra.
While the Trump administration has repeatedly accused China of its pandemic, Canberra outraged Beijing with a call for an independent investigation into the origins of the virus.
Australia comes into play
“The Australian government has openly admitted that there can be no room for vacuuming, be it vacuum power, soft power, relief or medical front,” Pryke said. Said.
“They cannot step back from any emptiness, for fear that China can fill.”
One way the outbreak affects geopolitical competition in the Pacific is to selectively alleviate travel restrictions between countries.
As the Australian and New Zealand coronaviruses take control, politicians are talking about opening borders between each other, creating a travel corridor – or “travel bubble” between the two countries.
Both countries successfully flattened the coronavirus curves by the end of April, but Australia is currently facing an increase in cases in the state of Victoria.
Until now, there was no publicly disclosed plan between the Pacific Islands and China for a similar travel balloon. Currently, China seems to focus on neighboring borders – southern Guangdong province is negotiating with Hong Kong and Macau for a travel balloon.
Some Australian politicians also want to see the Trans-Pacific bubble.
The ruling Liberal party lawmaker Dave Sharma said in the Australian newspaper last month that this article will help Canberra’s Pacific neighbors economically and “continue to see Australia as its first choice partner”.
“The strategic competition in the Pacific is alive and well, China and other countries want to play a bigger role. It is important that our influence and footprint in our close neighbors are visible.”
While it is not the primary motivation tool for a geopolitical travel bubble, the main factor is the urge to recycle economies, Pryke – removing travel restrictions between Australia and the Pacific Islands, said some geopolitical gains will be achieved for Canberra and Wellington.
“In a way, as the pandemic continues around the world, Australia and New Zealand will be the gatekeepers for entry into the Pacific. This will of course provide more geopolitical advantages to Australia and New Zealand.”
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