JULIA HOLLINGSWORTH & BEN WESTCOTT
CNN Digital Worldwide | Edited extracts
HONG KONG - China and Australia have found another battleground for their deepening diplomatic standoff: the Pacific islands' pandemic response.
Canberra has hit back at Beijing's claims it is derailing the rollout of Chinese vaccines in Papua New Guinea, the most-populous Pacific nation.
"We support PNG making sovereign decisions," Australia's Pacific minister Zed Seselja told CNN.
That's not the way Beijing sees it.
In early July, Chinese state-run tabloid Global Times accused Australia of sabotaging China's vaccine rollout in the Pacific.
China's foreign ministry slammed Australia for "undermining vaccine cooperation" in the region.
The Pacific islands location between US and Asia makes them key military staging grounds and the potential site of future defence installations for either Australia or China.
Australia has longstanding economic and cultural ties with the Pacific, and it is crucial to the country's national security to ensure the Chinese government doesn't gain a large foothold.
For China, the region represents an opportunity to expand its influence.
Now the political maneuvering has turned PNG's Covid outbreak into another area of competition as Australia and China present themselves as benevolent partners.
Yet China's 300,000 vaccine donations to the Pacific have failed to meet Australia's nearly 600,000 -- and with Canberra promising to supply another 15 million doses to the region, Beijing is on the back foot.
PNG avoided the worst of the pandemic in 2020, but this year its cases have skyrocketed, bringing its total to more than 17,000 reported cases and 179 deaths.
When PNG's cases were starting to soar in February, China announced it would send vaccines.
Yet PNG didn't approve the vaccines until May. That delay, according to Global Times, was due to Australian consultants "working in the shadows" in PNG to "manipulate" local policies.
"Australia has been found sabotaging and disturbing Pacific Island nations' cooperation with China on vaccines and anti-virus measures," the Global Times report claimed.
PNG only has about 500 doctors for nine million people.
While Australia has dispatched health experts to PNG to strengthen government systems and provide frontline logistics support, Pacific minister Seselja said he wasn't aware of them giving advice on Chinese vaccine efficacy.
He also noted Australia had been contributing a range of health care expertise to PNG long before the pandemic.
"Our commitment to the Pacific is longstanding and comprehensive," he said. "Any suggestion we do it in response to other countries is not well founded if you look at decades of consistent wide-ranging support."
Joanne Wallis, a professor in international security at the University of Adelaide, said it wouldn't have been unreasonable for Australian health experts to act as consultants to provide information to PNG on the efficacy of different vaccines.
The reality of the delay in approving the Chinese vaccines was likely a simple case of timing.
PNG authorities said they wanted Sinopharm to get WHO approval before rolling out the vaccine. By the time that happened in May, PNG had found alternatives.
There are good reasons Australia wants to supply the region with vaccines.
Australia is separated from PNG by just a few hundred metres. Although travel is restricted between the two countries, officials fear cases will spill over the border.
Australia - which controlled PNG for seven decades - also sees itself as having a responsibility to help out.
Since last year, relations between Australia and China have been in a deep freeze after the Morrison government infuriated China by publicly calling for an investigation into the origins of the Covid pandemic.
In a statement to CNN, China said it hoped Australia would "reflect on its own mistakes, earnestly change its course, and do more to protect the health and well-being of the people of the island countries and promote international cooperation in the fight against the virus."
Seselja said Australia took the "rule-based order" in the Pacific seriously, which was why it had invested in its defense force and partnered with like-minded countries who want democratic principles to flourish.
He said he didn't spend time worrying about the tensions between Australia and China playing out in the Pacific.
"We obviously seek to have positive relations with all nations including China, that's our fervent hope, but we do it in a way that it's consistent with Australian values.
Professor Wallis said the Pacific people had been managing the presence of other countries for a long time.
"Australia and its ally the United States might not always like the decisions that Pacific island states make," she said.
"But Pacific island states are neither deceived nor duped when it comes to attempts to influence them."