A Pacific nation's Covid-19 crisis has become a political power play between China and Australia

Australian officials carry boxes containing some 8,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine at the Port Moresby international airport on March 23, 2021.

(CNN)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 (PNG), the most-populous Pacific nation. "We support Papua New Guinea making sovereign decisions," Australia's minister for the Pacific, Zed Seselja, said in an interview with CNN on Wednesday.
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. At a press conference earlier this month, a spokesperson for China's Foreign Ministry slammed Australia for "undermining vaccine cooperation" in the region.
    For years, the countries have jockeyed for influence in the Pacific, a region of 14 island nations and territories with a population of about 10 million people with strategic advantages for both sides.
      The islands' location between US and Asia makes them key military staging grounds and the potential site of future defense 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 in the region.
      For China, the region represents an opportunity to expand its influence. Several of the islands are among the last nations in the world to recognize Taipei as a diplomatic partner over Beijing. The Chinese government would like to lure them away from Taiwan as part of its long-running strategy to isolate the island.
        Now all that political maneuvering has turned PNG's Covid-19 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 backfoot.

        Is there any truth to the accusations?

        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. The shots it offered hadn't yet been approved by the World Health Organization (WHO), so China agreed to provide trial data, according to the Global Times.
        Yet PNG didn't approve the vaccines until May. That delay, according to the 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.