Vaccine diplomacy has become the latest front in Australia’s cold war with China as the two governments battle for influence in the Pacific islands.
The Australian government presents its COVID-19 vaccine donations as benevolent humanitarianism. Yet they are a continuation of its efforts to act as the superpower of the south Pacific, shutting out rival powers in what it sees as its own backyard.
Australia has outbid China, supplying 600,000 doses already to countries including Fiji, Papua New Guinea (PNG), Timor Leste, the Solomon Islands and Tuvalu, in contrast to China’s 300,000 doses of Sinopharm.
Australia can afford to send the AstraZeneca vaccine to the region because it has an excess of domestically manufactured supply, due to low take up rates here.
This imperial rivalry with China is being played out in particular in one of Australia’s oldest former colonies—PNG.
In early July the Chinese state-owned Global Times accused Australian officials of “obstructing” PNG from authorising China’s Sinopharm vaccine for use there, a claim Australia has denied. China offered the vaccine to PNG in February, but the country chose to wait until it received World Health Organisation approval in May. By then it had already received AstraZeneca vaccines from the global COVAX initiative, as well as doses from Australia.
PNG dodged COVID in 2020 only to face an outbreak beginning in February this year, with a reported 17,000 cases and around 200 deaths in a country of eight million. With testing still limited the true number of cases is likely much higher.
The country has only 500 doctors, 4000 low-paid nurses and only 3000 hospital beds.
This small health professional ratio is a legacy of Australia’s approach to the health and education of PNGers in the period of colonial control, which only ended in 1975. In 1966 there were only eight university graduates.
The ratio of PNG doctors per 1000 people is the lowest in the South Pacific at 0.07 per cent. The average in the region is 0.5 per cent. The world average is 1.6 per cent.
In May last year the ABC reported of the Australian government’s “concern” should COVID overwhelm PNG’s already fragile health system.
However, this is not a genuine humanitarian concern for the Australian government but a fear that infections could spread to Australia, with islands in the Torres Strait as close as four kilometres from PNG, and also make it difficult for mining companies and other businesses operating there.
So much so, that either Scott Morrison or Foreign Minister Marise Payne were calling the PNG Prime Minister James Marape on an “almost daily” basis, “more than any other international leader”, according to ABC News.
PNG’s problems are the historical legacy of Australian plundering of its resources—copper, gold and oil—while spending nothing on PNG’s development or public services. Australian governments saw the country as a “strategic asset”, never to be released from Australia’s orbit.
In 1875, John Dungmore Lang, an eminent, nationalist Australian politician, urged that the six colonies create an Australian empire comprising Australia, New Zealand, New Guinea and various groups of islands in the Western Pacific.
As late as 1951, Liberal MP Paul Hasluck, the federal Minister for Territories, said PNG had “more than a century ahead” before it gained independence from Australia.
Morrison has promised to supply another 15 million doses of AstraZeneca to the South Pacific region in order to fulfil the government’s aim of the keeping out Chinese influence in the region.
The supply of vaccines has become a battle for imperialist influence, with the health of the people of PNG a secondary consideration.
By Tom Orsag