US launches diplomatic blitz in South Pacific
Visiting the Polynesian kingdom of Tonga on Wednesday, US Secretary Antony Blinken warned the South Pacific islands to be on guard in their relations with Beijing, while promising them a brighter future as friends of Washington.
“We’re a Pacific nation,” Blinken told reporters at a joint press conference in Nuku’alofa with the Tongan prime minister, Hu’akavemeiliku Siaosi Sovaleni. “We very much see the future in the Indo-Pacific region.”
“We really understand what is a priority for the people here,” Blinken added, listing climate change, “people-centered development,” clean energy, digital transformation, as well as illegal fishing.
Addressing the growing Chinese engagement in the South Pacific, the US diplomat claimed that it came with “some, from our perspective, increasingly problematic behavior,” including “predatory economic activities” and investments that can “undermine good governance and promote corruption.”
The US will respect “sovereign decisions” of countries as to who they want to do business with, but Washington is “concerned about some of the implications” of that investment, he added.
Blinken’s visit to Tonga came just two weeks after the Solomon Islands signed nine bilateral agreements on economic, technical and policing cooperation with China. Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare dismissed US and Australian objections to the deal as “nothing but interference by foreign states into the internal affairs” of his nation.
To counter China’s growing influence, the US reopened its embassy in the Solomons in January, after a 30-year absence. There are currently two temporary staff on duty in Honiara. The new embassy in Tonga, officially opened in May, also has two temporary staff. The State Department plans to hire a total of 40 employees over the next five years, including for planned missions in Vanuatu and Kiribati.
Tongan PM Sovaleni told reporters that relations between his country and the US are “grounded on our shared respect for democracy, the rule of law, and the rights and freedom of others.” He also pointed out that Tonga sent troops to Iraq and Afghanistan in support of US wars there, and hosted US troops during the Second World War, in pursuit of “shared values for freedom and democracy.”
Asked about the fact that the government building they stood in had been built with a grant from China, Sovaleni just said Tonga had “started officially to actually start paying off our debt” to Beijing.
Located in central Polynesia, Tonga is about 1,800 kilometers from New Zealand’s North Island. The kingdom consists of 171 islands and has around 100,000 residents. An additional 70,000 Tongans live in the US.