During his visit to the Polynesian kingdom of Tonga, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken issued a warning to the South Pacific islands about China’s actions in the region. At a joint press conference with Tongan Prime Minister Hu’akavemeiliku Siaosi Sovaleni in Nuku’alofa, Blinken emphasized the importance of the Indo-Pacific region and stated that the United States sees itself as a Pacific nation.
Blinken acknowledged the priorities of the Tongan people, including climate change, people-centered development, clean energy, digital transformation, and illegal fishing. However, he expressed concerns about China’s involvement in the South Pacific, characterizing it as problematic due to what the US perceives as predatory economic activities and investments that undermine good governance and promote corruption. While noting that the US will respect the sovereign decisions of countries in their choice of business partners, Blinken emphasized that Washington is concerned about the implications of Chinese investment in the region.
The visit comes in the wake of the Solomon Islands’ signing of nine bilateral agreements with China, focused on economic, technical, and policing cooperation. Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare of the Solomon Islands dismissed objections from the US and Australia, labeling them as interference in his nation’s internal affairs. To counter China’s growing influence, the US recently reopened its embassy in the Solomons after a 30-year absence and opened a new embassy in Tonga.
Tongan Prime Minister Sovaleni highlighted the shared values between his country and the US, including democracy, the rule of law, and the rights and freedom of others. He emphasized Tonga’s history of supporting the US, including sending troops to Iraq and Afghanistan and hosting US troops during World War II. Sovaleni also mentioned that Tonga has initiated efforts to repay its debt to China, referencing the government building they were standing in during the press conference, which was constructed with a grant from China.
Tonga, located in central Polynesia, consists of 171 islands and has a population of approximately 100,000 residents. Additionally, around 70,000 Tongans live in the US.
In response to the concerns about China’s activities in the South Pacific, the US is taking steps to strengthen its presence in the region. The State Department plans to hire 40 employees over the next five years for its embassies in Tonga, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, and Kiribati. This move reflects the US government’s commitment to maintaining its influence and partnerships in the Indo-Pacific region.
Overall, Secretary of State Blinken’s visit to Tonga serves as a reminder of the US’s commitment to its Pacific neighbors and its concerns about China’s actions in the region. The US aims to build stronger relationships with countries like Tonga, grounded in shared values of democracy, the rule of law, and freedom. As China’s influence in the South Pacific grows, the US is determined to protect its interests and maintain stability in the region.