Australia on Tuesday denied Chinese government and media allegations that it was interfering in the rollout of Chinese vaccine in Papua New Guinea.
The clash over vaccine diplomacy marks another rift in bilateral relations, which plummeted last year when Australia called for an independent investigation into the origins of and responses to COVID-19.
Australia in March became the first country to provide Papua New Guinea with vaccines as infection numbers rose rapidly in the former Australian colony and Australia’s nearest neighbor.
Papua New Guinea took delivery of 200,000 doses of the Chinese-made Sinopharm vaccine on June 23. The Papua New Guinea government said the Sinopharm vaccine would initially be provided to Chinese citizens in the country.
The Chinese Communist Party-owned English-language newspaper Global Times accused Australia of “planting Australian consultants” in Papua New Guinea to “undermine China’s vaccine cooperation with Pacific island countries.”
Australian Minister for International Development and the Pacific Zed Seselja denied the accusation during a visit to the South Pacific island nation.
“When it comes to the rollout, what we’re focused on is just making sure that we are providing as much assistance as we possibly can. If other countries want to provide assistance, that’s wonderful,” Seselja told Australian Broadcasting Corp. in an interview televised on Tuesday.
“We come to these issues in good faith, and we will continue to do things that are in the interests of our region and interests of our friends and neighbors, most particularly Papua New Guinea,” Seselja added.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin backed the Global Times’ criticism, saying on Monday that China “expresses its serious concern and resolute opposition” to what he described as Australia’s “irresponsible behavior.”
“Someone in Australia is using the vaccine issue to engage in political manipulation, bullying and coercion. It is indifferent to the lives and health of the people in Papua New Guinea, contrary to the basic humanitarian spirit, and seriously disrupts the overall situation of the global fight against the epidemic, which is extremely hypocritical and irresponsible,” Wang said in Mandarin.
“We have no geopolitical purpose and no political strings attached (to our vaccine supply). We urge the Australian side to stop disrupting and undermining China’s vaccine cooperation with Pacific island countries, and join China in making practical efforts to safeguard the health and well-being of the island people and promote international cooperation in fighting the epidemic,” Wang added.
Papua New Guinea Planning Minister Rainbo Paita had thanked both China and Australia for their help in the pandemic.
Australia has provided Papua New Guinea with almost 30,000 AstraZeneca doses. Papua New Guinea has also received 132,000 doses of AstraZeneca through the COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access, or COVAX, facility.
Papua New Guinea locals in the capital Port Moresby complained last week that they had been told the Sinopharm vaccine was still only available to Chinese, the Post-Courier newspaper in Port Moresby reported.
There are concerns among receiving countries that China’s vaccine diplomacy may come at a cost, which China has denied.
Beijing first promised the vaccines in February, but Papua New Guinea did not approve Sinopharm for emergency use until May.
Australia on Tuesday promised to share up to 15 million COVID-19 vaccine doses with Pacific island neighbors and Timor-Leste.
Papua New Guinea’s almost 9 million people mostly live in traditional villages. The country has recorded more than 17,000 infections and 173 deaths since the pandemic began, but the true extent is difficult to gauge because of a lack of testing.