Australia aid plane to Vanuatu delayed as Chinese plane was parked at Port Vila airport

Royal Australian Air Force personnel unload palettes of humanitarian aid at Port Vila airport in Vanuatu, on April 13, 2020. PHOTO: REUTERS

SYDNEY (REUTERS) - A Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) plane carrying aid to cyclone-struck Vanuatu turned around and returned home on Sunday (April 12) 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 2,000km 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," Mr Jason Rakau, chief executive of Airports Vanuatu, told Reuters on Tuesday. "We gave clearance to land. They were circling."

An Australian Defence spokeswoman said on Wednesday the aircraft had been unable to land safely.

"Another aircraft - an A320 charter flight from China - was running late in unloading its humanitarian cargo at Port Vila Airport preventing the RAAF C-17A from landing safely," the spokeswoman said in a statement to Reuters.

"We are discussing the reasons behind this regrettable incident with all parties to ensure it is not repeated," she added.

The RAAF plane returned on Monday, delivering relief supplies, including shelter kits, blankets and solar lanterns, as part of a A$4 million (S$3.60 million) relief package, Australia's High Commission to Vanuatu said in a statement.

Mr Jonathan Pryke, director of the Pacific Islands Programme 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," Mr 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 acting prime minister, Charlot Salwai, said the rapid testing equipment that arrived from China was urgently needed by hospitals, local media reported.

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