The opening of a Chinese embassy to Kiribati, a nation of 33 atolls and reef islands in the central Pacific Ocean, might 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, he transferred diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing. China considers the self-governing island of Taiwan a separate province and has fought seven of its diplomatic allies since 2016.
And this week, Kiribati pro-Beijing President Taneti Maamau – who oversaw the country’s diplomatic change – won a carefully observed election after advocating stronger ties with China, defeating an opposition rival who sympathized with Taiwan.
As Canberra and Beijing help the region, the possibility of a traveling bubble between the Pacific Islands and Australia has given rivalry a new dimension.
For the Pacific islands, which have a GDP of about $ 33.77 billion – less than 1% of China’s total GDP – China was a key partner during the pandemic.
The islands have so far largely guarded the coronavirus thanks to distance and early locking measures. But local communities could face disastrous consequences if the virus were affected, due to inadequate health care and a lack of testing capacity, experts warned.
“China’s engagement in the Pacific today is driven by opportunism. They are trying to gain as much influence as possible,” said Jonathan Pryke, program director for the Pacific Islands at the Lowy Institute.
But stronger connections can be useful in times of need.
In May, when China faced a global hinterland due to an early crackdown on the coronavirus epidemic, it turned to the Pacific for help. Days before the World Health Assembly in May, ministers from 10 Pacific countries joined a video conference on Covid-19 convened by China.
The meeting ended with a brilliant confirmation of the Chinese response to the coronavirus.
“This was needed by the Chinese government,” said Denghua Zhang of Australia’s National University of Canberra.
The Trump administration has repeatedly blamed China for the pandemic, while Canberra has angered Beijing with its call for an independent investigation into the origins of the virus.
“The Australian government has clearly acknowledged that there can be no room for creating a vacuum, (whether it’s hard power, soft power, aid or the medical front,” Pryke said.
“I can’t withdraw from any vacuum for fear that China might fill it.”
One way the pandemic could affect geopolitical rivalries in the Pacific is by selectively easing travel restrictions between states.
As Australia and New Zealand bring the coronavirus under control, their politicians are discussing opening borders, creating a travel corridor – or “passenger bubble” – between the two countries.
Both countries successfully aligned their coronavirus curves by the end of April, although Australia is now facing a sharp drop in cases in the state of Victoria.
So far, there has been no public report on a plan between the Pacific Island and China for a similar passenger balloon. At the moment, China seems to be focusing on neighboring borders – its southern province of Guangdong has talked to Hong Kong and Macao about the travel bubble.
Some Australian politicians are also eager to see the trans-Pacific bubble.
Dave Sharma, a spokesman for the ruling Liberal party, wrote in an Australian newspaper last month that the involvement would help Canberra’s Pacific economic neighbors and ensure they “continue to see Australia as their first-choice partner”.
“Strategic competition in the Pacific is alive and well, and China and other countries want to play a bigger role. It is important that our influence and footprint is visible in our close neighborhood,” he wrote.
While geopolitics is not the primary motivator of the passenger bubble – rather, a key driver is the need to get economies back on track, Pryke said – lifting travel restrictions between Australia and the Pacific Island would provide some geopolitical gains in Canberra and Wellington.
“In a way, Australia and New Zealand would become gatekeepers for access to the Pacific Ocean as the pandemic continues around the world. So that would, of course, give Australia and New Zealand additional geopolitical advantages,” he said.