Prime Minister ‘Akilisi Pōhiva warned in 2013 that Tonga’s indebtedness to China would one day make the kingdom vulnerable to pressure from the communist giant.
Now that prediction may come true as China seeks to pressure Pacific islands nations into supporting its claims to the Spratley islands in the South China Sea.
China lent Tonga $US60 million to rebuild of Nukuʻalofa after the riots in 2006.
Repayments on the loan were due in September 2013, but China agreed to an indefinite delay.
Kaniva News reported in early December of that year that he told a Tongan audience in Auckland: “Our hands and feet have already been tied.”
“We are now in a very difficult position to make any choice because failure to pay the loan would give China a chance to make a choice,” Hon. Pohiva told Radio New Zealand a few weeks later.
“Whatever China will need Tonga to do – that’s what will happen.”
At the time the future Prime Minister suggested China could ask Tonga to allow it to establish a naval base in the kingdom, but now it appears Tonga could be in line for the same kind of pressure to support China’s claim to the Spratleys that has been applied to other island nations.
According to a recent report in the Sydney Morning Herald, China has put pressure on Samoa, Tonga and Papua New Guinea to win their backing in the dispute over the Spratleys.
The islands, a collection of reefs and sandbanks, are claimed by both the Philippines and Vietnam, as well as China.
China has anchored a large naval taskforce over the islands group and has built an artificial island and airstrip and threatens passing aircraft that they are in Chinese airspace.
Neither Vietnam, which China briefly invaded in 1979, or the Philippines, has the military strength to drive China out.
The Philippines sent a group of marines to occupy an abandoned hulk on one of the Spratley reefs to establish its claims to the islands.
So why should the Chinese want the islands, and why should Tonga be involved?
The Spratleys sit next to one of the busiest sea lanes in the world, through which billions of tonnes of oil and gas are carried every year. Controlling the area would be of vital importance to China if it wanted to exert its influence in South East Asia.
They are also in a major fisheries areas and there are competing claims about whether or not they sit on top of gas or oil reserves. Under international law countries can claim an exclusive economic zone around their territory, which would cause major problems for neighbouring countries and international traffic.
China launched its first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning in 2012 and sent it to the disputed area during its sea trials.
The prospect of the Chinese possessing a carrier battle group – and speculation that China is planning to launch five more carriers – caused an immediate reaction in Washington, with the establishment of a major US Marine Corps base near Darwin in northern Australia and a thawing of relations with New Zealand.
China is extremely serious about keeping the Spratleys and claiming control of the area. However, like all countries she is subject to international law and needs to maintain at least a façade of respectability about her actions.
This means that while she builds airbases and shows off her military capability, she also has to play a diplomatic game and guarantee that she can rely on countries to vote her way in international fora.
That is why Tonga, and other Pacific islands may now find that China will call in all the favours it has done for the island states.
Vanuatu has already pledged its support, but Fiji recently repudiated a claim that it supported China. Samoa and Tonga are particularly vulnerable to pressure from China because of their financial dealings.
In a press release posted on its website under the heading “Uphold Peace and Prosperity in South China Sea,” the Chinese embassy in Tonga claimed the Spratleys had been Chinese territory “since ancient times.”
Both China and Taiwan use a mixture of diplomatic and financial pressure to build alliances in the Pacific, where often very poor island states are vulnerable to offers of easy loans or construction projects.
However, the price of those loans and new roads or bridges is usually to push the island nations into supporting either China or Taiwan in international venues such as the United Nations, where the votes of small nations are often vital.
The Solomon Islands, Tuvalu, Kiribati and Nauru all have diplomatic relations with Taiwan.
The main points
- Prime Minister ‘Akilisi Pohiva warned in 2013 that Tonga’s indebtedness to China would one day make the kingdom vulnerable to pressure from the communist giant.
- Now that prediction may come true as China seeks to pressure Pacific islands nations into supporting its claims to the Spratley islands in the South China Sea.
- The Spratleys sit next to one of the busiest sea lanes in the world, through which billions of tonnes of oil and gas are carried every year.
- Controlling the area would be of vital importance to China if it wanted to exert its influence in South East Asia.
For more information
What’s behind Beijing’s drive to control the South China Sea? (The Guardian)
China’s ‘gift’ troubles new Prime Minister (Nikkei Asian Review)
‘Akilisi Pohiva: Tonga is lost to China (Kaniva News)
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