The small island nation of Tonga is currently recovering after an undersea volcano erupted a little over a week ago devastating the country. Satellite images show Tonga covered in ash while coastal areas have seen trees torn and buildings destroyed. Several countries, including New Zealand and Australia, have begun sending aid to Tonga. Alongside them, China has pledged assistance, including drinking water, food and personal protective equipment.
When a country succumbs to natural disaster the origin of aid delivered to it is usually of little importance. However, while the material benefit derived from the emergency relief is indisputable, if we view China’s aid in the context of its broader strategy for the South Pacific region, then there is great cause for concern.
Though at first glance the South Pacific may seem like a distant and strategically unimportant region, major powers such as the United States have recognised its value as early as 1825. At the time, US President John Quincy Adams insisted on having a larger navy to ensure the “flourishing of commerce…extending to the islands of the Pacific”. During the Second World War, maintaining control over the region was essential to ensure reliable supply chains and to project military force.
The US’ current interest in the region derives from its desire to prevent a regional hegemon from displacing it and to ensure the free flow of goods and ideas to Asia. With China’s increasingly assertive actions in the South China Sea threatening the possibility of freedom of navigation, the South Pacific has been viewed as an important alternative for commercial and military vessels travelling to and from Asia. China’s ambition is to develop the world’s most powerful navy; to achieve this, it needs to establish dominance in the Pacific – which it has been doing for the last 20 years.
Between 2006 and 2017 China provided around $1.5 billion in foreign aid to the Pacific Islands through a combination of grants and loans. As of 2017 it is the third-largest donor to the Pacific. In Kiribati, a small island nation with a population of 120,000, China has made plans to upgrade and refurbish an old airstrip in one of Kiribati’s remote islands, Kanton, that was used by military aircraft in World War II. Located a mere 1,864 miles from Hawaii and the U.S. military bases there, if Kanton is upgraded for Chinese military use it would give China unprecedented access to a region traditionally dominated by the US since the Second World War.
In 2019, China scored a diplomatic triumph when Kiribati severed all ties with Taiwan and switched its recognition to Beijing, a decision motivated by Chinese promises of investment in the country. China’s interest in Kiribati lies in the fact that it is one of the most important islands in the Pacific as it controls one of the biggest exclusive economic zones (EEZs) in the world, covering over 1.3 million square miles in the Pacific Ocean.
In Tonga, China has also spared no expense in courting the Tongan citizenry to adopting a more pro-China stance. In 2017 a new building, which China spent $11 million on, opened in the capital Nuku’alofa where the Tongan premier and other ministers could work.
Before the Covid-19 pandemic, large delegations of Tongan bureaucrats would often take all-expenses-paid training trips to Beijing every year, while China has invested millions of dollars to house and train more than 100 Tongan athletes in state-of-the-art facilities in China. These gestures have been well received by many Tongans, including the head athletic coach of Tonga, Tevita Fauonuku, who praised “the best facilities” offered in China while calling the accommodation “lovely, beautiful”.
Moreover, after anti-government riots erupted in the country in 2006 there was widespread damage in Tonga, damage which China was all too happy to help repair with low-interests loans. However, these loans proved to be economically damaging to Tonga as in 2019 it owed $108 million to China’s Export-Import Bank, equivalent to 25 per cent of its GDP.
While China’s intentions in Tonga are shrouded in mystery, some have mentioned its close proximity to US allies such as New Zealand and Australia could be a factor, while others argue influence efforts are designed to establish ‘safe’ waters through which the Chinese navy can sail through.
Ultimately, it’s clear that the South Pacific is a strategically important region that has the attention of both the US and China. While the region has historically been allied with the US, China’s actions show it wants to change this historic trend. In the coming days, China’s aid to Tonga will begin to arrive and while the material benefit of this aid is indisputable, like the low-interest loans given in 2006, this will serve to further entrench Tonga into China’s orbit.
As to what the UK can do, it has already shown itself willing to project power in the South Pacific by sending a Royal Navy ship with humanitarian aid to Tonga. As part of its tilt to the Indo-Pacific, Global Britain can work with its South Pacific partners to counter China’s growing influence and ensure a free and open Indo-Pacific for decades to come.