The opening of a Chinese embassy in 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, diplomatic recognition passed from Taipei to Beijing. China considers the self-governing island of Taiwan a separate province and has stolen seven of its diplomatic allies since 2016.
Also this week, Kiribati pro-Beijing President Taneti Maamau – who oversaw the country’s diplomatic change – won a carefully observed election after winning for close ties with China, defeating a pro-Taiwanese opposition rival.
As Canberra and Beijing help the region, the possibility of a passenger balloon between the Pacific Islands and Australia has given the rivalry a new dimension.
For the Pacific islands, which have a total 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 cover-up 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 resolution of 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 is what the Chinese government needed,” said Denghua Zhang of the Australian National University in Canberra.
The Trump administration has repeatedly blamed China for the pandemic, while Canberra has angered Beijing with its call for independent research into the origins of the virus.
“The Australian government has clearly acknowledged that there can be no place to create a vacuum, be it 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 of the ways in which a 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 passenger corridor – or “travel bubble” – between the two nations.
Both countries successfully aligned their coronavirus curves by the end of April, although Australia is facing a decline in cases in the state of Victoria.
So far, there has been no publicly announced plan between the Pacific Islands and China for a similar travel bubble. At the moment, China seems to be focusing on neighboring borders – its southern province of Guangdong has talked to Hong Kong and Macao about a travel balloon.
Some Australian politicians are also eager to see the trans-Pacific bubble.
Dave Sharma, a representative of the ruling Liberal party, wrote in an Australian newspaper last month that the inclusion 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 immediate neighborhood,” he wrote.
While geopolitics is not the primary motivator of the passenger bubble – rather, a key driver is the drive to get economies back on track, Pryke said – lifting travel restrictions between Australia and the Pacific 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.