China's Largesse in Tonga Threatens Future of Nation

By Perry, Nick | Telegraph - Herald (Dubuque), July 14, 2019 | Go to article overview

China's Largesse in Tonga Threatens Future of Nation


Perry, Nick, Telegraph - Herald (Dubuque)


BY NICK PERRY

The Associated Press

NUKU'ALOFA, Tonga - The days unfold at a leisurely pace in Tonga, a South Pacific archipelago with no traffic lights or fast-food chains, and where snuffling pigs roam dusty roads.

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

Government officials work in a shiny new office block that was an $11 million gift from China. Dozens of bureaucrats take all-expenses-paid training trips to Beijing each year. And China has laid out millions of dollars to bring Tongan athletes and coaches to a training camp in China's Sichuan province.

"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 about $108 million to China's Export-Import bank, equivalent to about 25 percent of GDP.

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."

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.

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.

Experts say the South Pacific could be important to China's navy or coveted for its fisheries, seabed minerals and natural resources. China is also engaged in an 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," said professor Rory Medcalf, the head of the National Security College at Australian National University. "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, putting it behind only Australia, according to an analysis by Australian think-tank the Lowy Institute. And that figure rises to over $6 billion when future commitments are considered.

Some worry the loans could become debt traps when nations can't repay.

China's ambassador to Tonga, Wang Baodong, said China has only benevolent intentions in Tonga and no hidden agenda. "Some people in the West are being over-sensitive and too suspicious," he said. "No need."

It's not just money that is flowing in from China. …

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