A Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) plane carrying aid to cyclone-struck Vanuatu turned around and returned home on Sunday as a Chinese plane with medical equipment was already on the airport’s tarmac, Vanuatu airport officials said.
The decision to return to Australia, some 2,000 km (1,240 miles) away was made despite being cleared by air traffic control to land and comes amid increasing rivalry between Australia’s and China’s aid programmes in the Pacific.
A plane from China, carrying medical equipment donated by Guangdong province to fight the coronavirus, had landed at the airport in Port Vila on Saturday.
“The Chinese plane was at one end of the runway. There was still 2,000 metres of runway available,” Jason Rakau, chief executive of Airports Vanuatu, told Reuters.
“We gave clearance to land. They were circling.”
A spokesman for Australian defence minister Linda Reynolds did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
An RAAF plane did arrive on Monday, delivering relief supplies, including shelter kits, blankets and solar lanterns, as part of a A$4 million ($2.6 million) relief package, Australia’s High Commission to Vanuatu said in a statement.
Jonathan Pryke, director of the Pacific Islands Program at the Lowy Institute, an Australian foreign policy think tank, said the airport incident was “bizarre”.
“Coordination is critical. When you’re both trying to help, even if you’re not going to work together, at least don’t get in each other’s way,” Pryke told Reuters.
“The good news is the supplies from Australia did get there, just a tad later.”
Tropical Cyclone Harold made landfall on April 6, destroying over 1,000 schools and 90% of homes in the worst-hit area of Sanma, the United Nations said. Local media reported two people were killed.
Australia, traditionally the largest aid donor to the Pacific islands, is seeking to step up its engagement with the region out of concern it risks being overshadowed by Chinese aid and financial support.
Vanuatu has closed its borders to stop the spread of coronavirus, and aid arriving from China and Australia has been handled by staff wearing personal protective equipment.
Vanuatu’s prime minister, Charlot Salwai, said the rapid testing equipment that arrived from China was urgently needed by hospitals, local media reported.