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Opinion

China's coronavirus aid to Pacific islands is part of geopolitical game

Beijing is using health care to improve relations in strategically significant area

| Pacific Islands
Chinese military hospital ship the Peace Ark travels on the Pacific Ocean: the ship launched free medical services for the citizens of Vanuatu in July 2018.   © Reuters

Jonathan Pryke and Richard McGregor are fellows at the Lowy Institute in Sydney.

When it comes to helping the Pacific islands fight the spread of the coronavirus, China has been quick out of the blocks. In early March, when it was confident that it had tamed the spread of the virus, and new infections were beginning to fall, Beijing convened a video conference with most of the ministers from Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands to give them advice about how to beat the virus.

It was a remarkable display of both China's enormous capacity and confidence, and the ability of its system to rapidly change course. Only weeks earlier, China appeared to be on its knees as the virus spread throughout the country from its epicenter in Wuhan. Now, Beijing was giving lessons to its neighbors.

As COVID-19 barrels toward the Pacific, China's moves are a potent reminder of its soft power and capabilities in a region that is fast forming into a fault line for geopolitical tension in the South Pacific. In the age of the coronavirus, public health and politics are joined together as never before.

This is not China's first foray into health care in the Pacific islands. In July 2018, Chinese military hospital ship the Peace Ark laid anchor in the idyllic Port Vila harbor to launch a week of free medical services for the citizens of Vanuatu, a small island nation in the South Pacific.

The ship's 300 beds and eight operating theaters dwarfed the capacity of the country's largest hospital. By the end of its mission, the Peace Ark had provided consultations and treatments to 4,700 people, around 10% of the capital city's population. This was only one stop on the 205-day Mission Harmony that included four Pacific nations.

Now, Pacific nations are already trying to turn what are usually considered to be vulnerabilities, their small size and remoteness, into strengths to keep COVID-19 at bay. For weeks, they have restricted entry and some have gone further, closing their borders altogether.

More than 200 cases have been identified in countries like Guam, French Polynesia, Fiji and Papua New Guinea, and many more are expected.

Health systems in much of the region are already dealing with severe and acute diseases, such as dengue, malaria, tuberculosis and diabetes, and will not be able to cope. There are only a handful of ventilators and ICU beds in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea's capital, with a population of more than 350,000.

Even if COVID-19 had not made it to the Pacific, the economic cost for a region so dependent on the outside world through aid, tourism and migration would have been devastating. Budgets across the Pacific will be wrecked and large swathes of the population will lose their jobs.

Given their economic fragility, these governments cannot draw on the same firepower as Australia, China, Japan and other regional nations. The Pacific islands will need significant fiscal injections to keep their economies afloat, and fast, which is where the geopolitical rivalry comes in.

While much attention has been focused on Beijing's high-profile efforts to send masks and ventilators to countries like Spain and Italy, its work in the Pacific is a reminder that the Chinese are active in every hemisphere.

Scott Morrison, Australia's prime minister, has tried to put the Pacific nations on the global coronavirus map, raising their plight on the first hookup of G-20 leaders in late March.

Australia has already provided medical materials and expertise and is reviewing its aid program to take account of the changed circumstances. But generally, Australia's resources in the region are stretched.

Over the past 15 years China has dramatically scaled up its footprint in the Pacific. Chinese cranes and state-owned engineering companies are at work in every major city. Chinese trade stores are in every major town. China is now the third largest aid donor in the region, eclipsing Japan and the U.S. but still far behind Australia and New Zealand, and it is fast becoming the region's most important trading partner. Taiwan is also a player, in an effort to retain a diplomatic foothold in the Pacific which Beijing has managed to almost completely nullify.

A Chinese construction project in Port Moresby in November 2018. Chinese cranes and state-owned engineering companies are at work in every major city.   © Reuters

The scale and intensity of Chinese engagement have rattled Australia and its allies, who fear that China will try to use its newfound leverage, such as diplomacy, debt, aid, trade, elite capture, to gain what might the biggest prize, a military base in the region. While a long shot, since the Pacific nations are not interested and Australia seems resolute in preventing it, the strategic return on investment which China could get in the region is appealing.

The benefit of a port for China may be questionable. The logistics of maintaining supply routes alone would be challenging but it would have a profound psychological impact on Australia. It would accelerate a military buildup and confirm its worst fears about Chinese soft aid, that it is aimed at smoothing the path to a hard-power presence in the Pacific that would challenge the U.S. and its allies, like Australia, head on.

Many commentators have suggested that the coronavirus will turn nations inward. Nationalism will trump globalization, so the argument goes. But the early skirmishes in the Pacific tell a different story, of a renewed fight for influence, albeit on a battleground that is being cleared, and remade, by a once-in-a-century pandemic.

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