… Why is China pouring money into Tonga? ... Rory Medcalf, the head of the National Security College at Australian National University, said the area could provide a security bridgehead for China’s navy… China has poured about $1.5 billion in aid and low-interest loans into the South Pacific since 2011...

 

 

China’s largesse in Tonga threatens future of Pacific nation

 

By Nick Perry, Associated Press

July 10, 2019

 

NUKU’ALOFA, Tonga (AP) — The days unfold at a leisurely pace in Tonga, a South Pacific archipelago with no traffic lights or fast-food chains. Snuffling pigs roam dusty roads that wind through villages dotted with churches.

 

Yet even in this far-flung island kingdom there are signs that a battle for power and influence is heating up among much larger nations — and Tonga may end up paying the price.

 

In the capital, Nuku’alofa, government officials work in a shiny new office block — an $11 million gift from China that is rivaled in grandeur only by China’s imposing new embassy complex.

 

Dozens of Tongan bureaucrats take all-expenses-paid training trips to Beijing each year, and China has laid out millions of dollars to bring 107 Tongan athletes and coaches to a training camp in China’s Sichuan province ahead of this month’s Pacific Games in Samoa.

 

“The best facilities. The gym, the track, and a lot of equipment we don’t have here in Tonga,” said Tevita Fauonuku, the country’s head athletic coach. “The accommodation: lovely, beautiful. And the meals. Not only that, but China gave each and everyone some money. A per diem.”

 

China also offered low-interest loans after pro-democracy rioters destroyed much of downtown Nuku’alofa in 2006, and analysts say those loans could prove Tonga’s undoing. The country of 106,000 people owes some $108 million to China’s Export-Import bank, equivalent to about 25% of GDP.

 

The U.S. ambassador to Australia, Arthur Culvahouse Jr., calls China’s lending in the Pacific “payday loan diplomacy.”

 

“The money looks attractive and easy upfront, but you better read the fine print,” he said.

 

China’s ambassador to Tonga, Wang Baodong, said China was the only country willing to step up to help Tonga during its time of need.

 

Graeme Smith, a specialist in Chinese investment in the Pacific, is not convinced China tried to trap Tonga in debt, saying its own financial mismanagement is as much to blame.

 

Nonetheless, he said it’s worrying that the nation of 171 islands, already vulnerable to costly natural disasters, has little ability to repay.

 

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Why is China pouring money into Tonga?

 

Teisina Fuko, a 69-year-old former parliament member, suspects China finds his country’s location useful.

 

“I think Tonga is maybe a window to the Western side,” he said. “Because it’s easy to get here and look into New Zealand, Australia.”

 

“It’s a steppingstone,” he said.

 

For decades, the South Pacific was considered the somewhat sleepy backyard of Australia, New Zealand and the United States. Now, as China exerts increasing influence, Western allies are responding.

 

Experts say there hasn’t been this level of geopolitical competition in the region since the U.S. and Japan were bombing each other’s occupied atolls.

 

“We haven’t seen anything like this since World War II,” said Smith, a research fellow at Australian National University.

 

After Cyclone Gita destroyed Tonga’s historic Parliament House last year, the government first suggested China might like to pay to rebuild it. Then Australia and New Zealand stepped in and are now considering jointly funding the project.

 

Elsewhere in the region, Australia is redeveloping a Papua New Guinea naval base while New Zealand has announced it will spend an extra $500 million on overseas aid over four years, with most of it directed at South Pacific nations.

 

Rory Medcalf, the head of the National Security College at Australian National University, said the area could provide a security bridgehead for China’s navy, which currently must sail through the U.S.-friendly islands of Japan, Taiwan and the Philippines to get to the Pacific.

 

Other possible explanations, Medcalf said, include the region’s fisheries, seabed minerals and other natural resources, as well as China’s ongoing effort to lure away the few remaining countries that recognize Taiwan instead of China — several of them Pacific island nations.

 

“It’s not entirely clear what China wants in the South Pacific,” Medcalf said. “It’s just clear that China is becoming very active and making its presence felt.”

 

China has poured about $1.5 billion in aid and low-interest loans into the South Pacific since 2011...

 

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