Mon, Jul 15, 2019 - Page 7 News List

China’s largesse threatens the future of Tonga

China’s footprint is increasingly pervasive in the country of 106,000 people, which owes the Export-Import Bank of China about US$108 million, or about 25 percent of its GDP

By Nick Perry  /  AP, NUKU‘ALOFA, Tonga

Illustration: Yusha

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 could end up paying the price.

In the capital, Nuku‘alofa, government officials work in a shiny new office block — a US$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 laid out millions of dollars to bring 107 Tongan athletes and coaches to a training camp in China’s Sichuan Province before the 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 about US$108 million to the Export-Import Bank of China, equivalent to about 25 percent of GDP.

US ambassador to Australia Arthur Culvahouse Jr has called 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 was the only country willing to step up to help Tonga during its time of need, Chinese ambassador to Tonga Wang Baodong (王保東) said.

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

Nonetheless, it is worrying that the nation of 171 islands, already vulnerable to costly natural disasters, has little ability to repay the debt, said Smith, a research fellow at Australian National University.

Why is China pouring money into Tonga?

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

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

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

Experts say there has not been this level of geopolitical competition in the region since the US and Japan were bombing each other’s occupied atolls.

“We haven’t seen anything like this since World War II,” Smith said.

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

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

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