Beijing has lashed out at Australia after its state media accused Canberra of sabotaging China's supply of Covid-19 vaccines to Papua New Guinea.
Nationalistic tabloid the Global Times claimed sources have revealed Australia has moved to block the China's vaccine for use in PNG as debate over vaccine diplomacy heats up.
The state-run publication said Canberra was attempting to stamp its authority in the region by enforcing its own vaccines on PNG and other Pacific nations. A source claimed Australia had threatened to cut investment in PNG if it welcomed Chinese vaccines.
Addressing reporters on Monday evening, China's Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin delivered a scathing assessment of the accusations levelled against Australia.
"Those in Australia who take advantage of vaccine issues to engage in political manipulation and bullying coercion are being callous to the life and health of the people in PNG," he said.
"What they've done is a breach of the basic humanitarian spirit and gravely undermines global anti-pandemic cooperation. China voices its deep concern over and firm opposition to such irresponsible behaviour."
However Australia's Minister for International Development and the Pacific, Zed Seselja, who is currently in PNG, rejected the claims telling the ABC it was "absolutely not the case" and pointed to Australia's long history of medical assistance provided to PNG.
Dr Tess Newton Cain, Project Lead at Griffith Asia Institute's Pacific Hub, told Yahoo News Australia vaccine has been used as "diplomatic capital on all sides".
"Everyone is using it as a way of projecting their diplomatic profile into the region," she said.
Dr Newton Cain pointed out the vaccination rate in PNG was extremely low, with about 50,000 doses administered, and vaccines supplies from all of its key partners were welcome as fears mount the Delta variant could enter the country and devastate a vulnerable population.
She said not one country would be able to entirely vaccinate the required 80 per cent of PNG's population and its partners "should be working together on this".
According to the Global Times, China has expressed interest in working alongside Australia – a proposition it says a "hostile" Canberra has rejected.
Australia's need to continue strong PNG relationship
Earlier this year as a vaccine battle showed signs of materialising, Pat Conroy, Shadow Minister for International Development and the Pacific, said it was vital Australia remained the partner of choice for Pacific Island nations.
"If Australia does not step up and provide adequate and timely assistance, this will create a vacuum that will be filled by other nations such as China," he said.
Dr Newton Cain said Australia "has had and needs to continue very deep-seated relationships with Papua New Guinea for their own benefit and as a good thing in themselves".
However, she said it would be "intellectually baffling" and "strategically inept" if Australia's only driver behind its relationship with PNG was competing with China.
Where China's PNG doses are going
Mr Seselja insisted Australia was acting in "good faith".
PNG's vaccine rollout is currently being supported by AstraZeneca doses donated by Australia, New Zealand and the global COVAX facility.
While Beijing has supplied 200,000 doses of its Sinovac vaccine, it is only being used for Chinese nationals in PNG to alleviate burden on the nation's stretched healthcare system and to allow businesses and projects to continue, Dr Newton Cain said.
The true extent of the virus's spread is unclear in PNG. In March, half of a testing sample of 500 from the country returned positive, Queensland health authorities revealed.
China has faced direct competition from the US in sharing vaccines globally, however Washington continues to stress it is not sharing vaccines to improve relations, secure favours or extract concessions, but to save lives and end the pandemic.
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