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Tonga: between an irresistible force and an immovable object

International relations Relations with China Tonga Pacific Area

The first paper of this series noted that China’s growth has led it to expand its influence across the Indo-Pacific region. That growth has also led China to seek to displace the United States from its established position as the regional hegemon. A report published in 2017 noted that between 2007 and 2016, China donated NZ$2.54 billion ($2.44 billion in 2019 dollars) in aid to the Pacific Islands. The study also noted that between 2006 and 2014, China funded 218 projects that facilitated agriculture, communications, education, energy, health, infrastructure, sanitation and humanitarian assistance across eight island countries that had diplomatic ties to Beijing.

Tonga received NZ$190 million ($182.5 million) of China’s donations. By 2017, China was also constructing a three-storey building, named St. George Palace, which was funded by a NZ$20 million ($19.2 million) grant to Tonga from the People’s Republic of China. The building was to house the Prime Minister’s office, the Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Beijing also announced in April 2017 that it would fund a stadium, to cost NZ$35 million ($33.6 million), at Tonga High School to host the 2019 Pacific Games. The International Economic Co-operation Division of China’s Ministry of Commerce was to take responsibility for co-ordinating the project. That largesse has led many to question China’s motives in Tonga, and the South-West Pacific in general.

Key points:

  • The military and economic rise of China has seen tensions between Beijing, Washington and Canberra play out in the South-West Pacific region.
  • China wishes to replace the United States in the South-West and Western Pacific.
  • The influence in the region of the US and Australia derives in part from the Second World War.
  • China’s rise, coupled with the established influence of the US in the South-West Pacific, could see the region become yet another proxy battlefield in the two antagonists’ power-plays.
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