Waves pummel the coast of Temwaiku, a village on the capitol island of South Tarawa, Kiribati.

During the pandemic, China opened an embassy on a small remote island in the Pacific. Here’s why

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.

Kiribati is the latest example Beijing’s growing influence in the Pacificwhich consists of a series of resource-rich islands that control vital waterways between Asia and America.
The picturesque islands have long been aligned with the U.S., which has a large military presence, and allies such as Australia, the region the largest donor and security partner. But in recent years, many have established closer ties with China because of Beijing’s diplomatic and economic reach – creating a turning point for geopolitical tensions.

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.

Deepening reach

In 2006, then-Prime Minister Wen Jiabao became the top Chinese official to visit the Pacific Islands. He pledged Three billion yuan ($ 424 million) in concession loans to invest in resource development, agriculture, fisheries and other key industries, a sign of Beijing’s interest in the region.
Beijing is today its second largest donor – after Australia data compiled by the Lowy Institute, an Australian think tank.

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.

Chinese health experts have given advice on how to fight the coronavirus video conferencing with his counterparts in 10 Pacific Island countries sharing diplomatic relations with Beijing.
In March, China announced the agreement donation of $ 1.9 million in cash and medical supplies to help countries fight Covid-19. He also sent medical supplies, protective equipment and test kits, according to Chinese embassies in the region.
Chinese medical teams are on the ground, including nations Samoa, helping local health authorities develop guidelines on how to control the coronavirus. Specialized military vehicles are provided in Fiji.
According to the World Health Organization, the Pacific announced 312 cases and 7 deathsmost of which are located in the American territory of Guam.

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.

The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs denies this, speaking China’s aid to the countries of the Pacific island islands is “original” and has “no political connection”.

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.

In joint press release after the event, the Pacific States praised China for its “open, transparent and accountable approach in adopting timely and robust response measures and sharing the detention experience.”

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.

Australia enters

China helped the Pacific with the coronavirus, pale compared to the financial support provided by Australia. Last month, Canberra said they spent A $ 100 million ($ 69 million) to provide “quick financial support” to 10 countries in the region, diverting money from their existing aid programs.
Australia is also recent announced that it will broadcast popular domestic television shows such as “Neighbors” and “Masterchef” in seven Pacific Island countries – a move widely perceived as a soft force of pressure to counter China’s growing influence.

“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.”

This was on Australian radar before the pandemic. Following his inauguration in 2018, Prime Minister Scott Morrison launched his “Pacific Step Up” initiative, which includes increased foreign aid and the establishment of An infrastructure fund worth $ 1.5 billion for the region.

Passenger balloon

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.

Why China is challenging Australia because of its influence in the Pacific Islands

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.

Pacific States, including Fiji,, Samoa and the Solomon Islands they asked to join the plan.

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.

The coronavirus downtime has put a lot of pressure on the economies of tourism-dependent Pacific countries, with Australia and New Zealand being the main source of tourists there. In 2018, the two countries contributed more than a million foreign arrivals to the Pacific region, representing 51% of tourist arrivals, report from the South Pacific Tourist Organization. By comparison, 124,939 Chinese tourists visited the Pacific Islands in 2018, a decrease of 10.9% over the previous year.

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.

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