U.S. and China battle for influence in Pacific island nations


NUKU’ALOFA, Tonga — China is everywhere in this Pacific island kingdom, from the grand central embassy packed with diplomats, to the young Tongans who have been on student exchanges to Chinese universities, to the government’s balance sheets, burdened with sky-high debts to Beijing.

Now, as Washington fears that Beijing is outcompeting it in even the tiniest of countries, the Biden administration is rushing to boost long-dormant ties to island nations across the region where China has a strong presence. Secretary of State Antony Blinken this week became the first-ever Cabinet official to visit Tonga, dedicating a new U.S. Embassy in this low-lying capital, and other officials are due to fan across Papua New Guinea, Micronesia, Palau and elsewhere in the weeks to come, seeking to close the gap in a region that administration officials acknowledge has gotten “short shrift.”

The question will be whether Washington’s enticements can be enough to corral nations where China has a years-long head start. The United States largely abandoned the region after the Cold War.

Already, the leaders of the Solomon Islands have cast themselves deeply into Beijing’s camp, signing defense and policing pacts over American objections. Fiji has agreed to law enforcement cooperation that gives Chinese officials sweeping powers on its territory, but the new government has vowed to rip it up. Tonga is deeply in debt to China. And previous bursts of interest from Washington have quickly dissipated, leaving local leaders unsure whether this time is different.

“The United States is determined to be a strong partner,” Blinken told reporters Wednesday after meeting with top Tongan leaders. He said that Tonga and other Pacific island nations were free to pick their partners, including China, and that they did not face a choice between Washington and Beijing. But he added that he was worried about Chinese behavior toward the region.

“As Chinese engagement with the region has grown, there has been some, from our perspective, increasingly problematic behavior,” he said, including predatory financing, the militarization of the South China Sea, and investments that undermine other countries’ sovereignty.

“It is a clear indication to us of the desire and commitment by the United States of America to strengthen relations between our two countries,” said Tongan Prime Minister Siaosi Sovaleni, speaking alongside Blinken after their meeting. “We’ve been asking the United States to actually have a presence here for a very long time.”

The stakes could be enormous. Despite their small size, each country has an equal vote inside the United Nations. They control fisheries and seabed minerals over a stretch of ocean three times larger than the continental United States. And they sit as beacons in a region that has strategic importance in any conflict involving China. One leader, then-Micronesian President David Panuelo, declared in March that Beijing had been engaged in “political warfare” to gain control of his country’s strategic infrastructure, which lies within striking distance of a key U.S. military base in Guam.

China “is putting forward an order defined by … economic coercion,” Ely Ratner, the assistant secretary of defense for Indo-Pacific security affairs, told an audience attending a Brookings Institution event last week. “We see them engaging in other forms of corruption and influence throughout the region.”

The benefits to China have been significant: Several island nations have dropped their recognition of Taiwan in favor of Beijing, a core Chinese demand. And Beijing has won expanded access for its fishing fleet. Its outreach to the region is omnipresent — just as Blinken was touching down in Tonga, a Chinese military-run hospital ship was sailing away from a week-long visit to Kiribati, with planned visits to Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands, East Timor and Tonga itself, according to the Chinese Defense Ministry.

Even Blinken’s meetings here came under the banner of the Chinese government: He met top Tongan leaders in the St. George government building, built in 2015 with an $11 million grant from the Chinese government. Visitors pass under a bronze plaque that says “China Aid,” in red letters and Chinese characters, hung over the front door.

Spooked by inroads China has made into the region, the State Department has moved rapidly this year to build up a diplomatic presence after President Biden hosted Pacific leaders at the White House in September. The United States opened embassies in the Solomon Islands in January — it closed its embassy in Honiara in 1993 — and in Tonga in May. There are plans for two more in Vanuatu and Kiribati.

You “may not have received the diplomatic support and attention that you deserve,” Vice President Harris said last year as the Biden administration announced the expansion of its embassies. She said that was about to change.

Blinken’s brief Pacific tour this week also includes stops in New Zealand and Australia for bilateral talks, part of a broader outreach to the region. Earlier this year he visited Papua New Guinea, substituting for Biden after the president canceled a trip at the last minute to return to Washington to negotiate the debt ceiling, a blow to U.S. efforts to signal it takes the region seriously. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin will visit Papua New Guinea this week, while Interior Secretary Deb Haaland is visiting Palau and Micronesia.

Tonga, an archipelago kingdom of 105,000 people, borrowed extensively from China years ago to rebuild its capital following pro-democracy riots in 2006. Now its external debt stands at $430 million, with two-thirds of that owed to China, its budget records show. The Chinese loan is coming due next year, with payments set to triple — a possible example of the “debt-trap” diplomacy that China has been criticized for in recent years, although Chinese leaders say Tonga won’t be made to pay money it can’t afford.

Tonga needs the help. A massive volcanic explosion last year followed by a tsunami destroyed homes and infrastructure, and the country is still working to rebuild.

Chinese diplomacy in recent years has otherwise been nimble. Chinese diplomats learn the Tongan language. They show up at public events. They make it easy to get visas. They spread development aid to towns around the country — and then they boast about it.

“My colleagues and I visited many schools, communities, plantations and families, and gained the firsthand understanding on what the people need,” Chinese Ambassador to Tonga Cao Xiaolin said at a handover ceremony of agricultural machinery last year, according to remarks posted on his embassy’s website. He said the embassy had sponsored about 100 aid projects, ranging from drinking water tanks for rural residents to agricultural training projects for farmers — the kind of soft power outreach that slowly wins allegiances.

“The Chinese are involved in the business sector. They’re in the social sector, they’re in the sports, they’re in finance, they’re everywhere,” said Tevita Motulalo, a Tongan journalist who has paid close attention to his country’s foreign policy.

“If they’re trying to take over our country, it would seem to look like that. But we haven’t really crossed any red line,” he said. “Until there are viable alternatives, we need to live peaceably with them.”

The lack of alternatives can be a challenge, with the U.S. open-market economy making it harder for policymakers to channel investments solely for the purpose of furthering U.S. foreign policy aims.

“They can’t really direct U.S. companies to invest in Tonga,” said Graeme Smith, a professor at Australian National University’s Pacific affairs department who studies Chinese investments in the Pacific. “If the investment isn’t there, they’re not going to come.”

One irritant in Pacific islands’ relations with both Beijing and Washington is climate change: low-lying atoll nations like Tuvalu and Kiribati will be among the first rendered uninhabitable by rising sea levels. And all the countries are facing increased natural disasters linked to warming temperatures, despite having done little to contribute to the problem.

Tongan leaders say that they are eager to build deeper economic and security ties to Washington, and that they don’t see themselves as having to choose between China and the United States.

“There’s a whole world that opens up with having deeper relations with America as the greatest superpower,” said Fatafehi Fakafanua, a member of the nobility who is the speaker of Tonga’s parliament.

He said he hoped for bolstered cooperation with the U.S. military for improved coastal surveillance as the country faces a growing drug trafficking challenge. Tonga also wants increased investment in infrastructure.

“There was an imbalance in terms of permanent presence on the ground” in the absence of a U.S. embassy, Fakafanua said. “It’s hard to have a relationship when there’s no one to talk to.”

In theory, U.S. diplomats should be arriving to a receptive audience.

“Tonga believes in democracy, freedom of religion. A lot of the same things that countries in the West believe in,” said Cleo Paskal, a Pacific expert and senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “China is not a natural fit. But they need economic development. Otherwise, you end up in situations where you can’t pay your schoolteachers. You don’t have proper health care.”

Still, the job won’t necessarily be a cakewalk, and observers say the Americans have already made some missteps, such as scheduling the official opening of the embassy in Tonga in early May, when the king and other top leaders were in Britain for the coronation of King Charles III. And Tongans will still have to fly to Fiji for most consular services. A senior State Department official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal planning, said that the embassy’s opening date was picked because it was the earliest possible moment to do so, and that a goal over time is to ramp up consular services inside Tonga.

For now, there are only two U.S. diplomats rotating through Tonga, with an ambassador yet to be nominated. The eventual plan is to have four or five diplomats posted there. Blinken on Wednesday dedicated the embassy, a small office space on the fourth floor of the national bank building.

“How are they going to engage in such a way that is going to be effective and influential? Are they receiving language training, cultural training, so that they can engage with their host governments in culturally contextual, specific ways?” said Anna Powles, a senior lecturer at New Zealand’s Massey University who studies the geopolitics of the Pacific region. “All of those things will determine how effective American diplomacy is going to be in the region. It’s not just about opening up embassies, it’s also about the way in which that diplomacy is practiced.”

Pannett reported from Wellington, New Zealand.

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