Life is leisurely in the South Pacific kingdom of Tonga. There are no traffic lights or fast-food chains. Snuffling pigs roam dusty roads. Yet in this far-flung multi-island nation, a power struggle may be heating up—and Tonga may pay the price.
For decades, people saw the South Pacific as the somewhat sleepy backyard of Australia, New Zealand, and the United States. Now China is showing interest in Tonga. Tongan government officials work in a shiny new office block—an $11 million gift from China. Bureaucrats take all-expense-paid trips to Beijing. And China spends millions to send Tongan athletes and coaches to a Chinese training camp.
But even before these more recent handouts, China offered aid to Tonga. When rioters destroyed parts of the capital of Nuku‘alofa in 2006, China gave the Tongan government low-interest loans.
Now the kingdom of 110,000 people owes about $108 million to China’s Export-Import bank—a huge amount for a small country. That debt could ruin Tonga.
Experts say Tonga’s location could be valuable to China’s navy. China may also want its fisheries, seabed minerals, and natural resources.
Some believe China has had ulterior motives in pouring aid and loans into other nations in the area. The loans China offers now could become debt traps when nations can’t repay.
“It’s not entirely clear what China wants in the South Pacific,” says Rory Medcalf, head of the National Security College at Australian National University.
China’s ambassador to Tonga, Wang Baodong, says China has only kindly intentions in Tonga and no hidden agenda. He claims some Westerners “are being oversensitive and too suspicious.”
Last year, repayments were due to start, and panic crept in. Tongan Prime Minister ‘Akilisi Pohiva called on other Pacific nations to demand debt relief from China. Days later, he reversed his position, saying Tonga was “exceedingly grateful” for China’s help. It seems Tongan officials had signed up for a Chinese aid program—and gotten five more years to pay back their loan.
But at what cost? Because of Tonga’s debt to China, other foreign investors have backed away. That has shrunk the money supply needed to pay the loans back.
Wang denies that China is in a Pacific power struggle with the West. He claims the notion that China is using Tonga to keep tabs on New Zealand and Australia is nonsense.
But Teisina Fuko, a former Tongan parliament member, questions China’s motives. He suspects China finds his country’s location “a steppingstone.” As to Tonga’s enormous debt, he says, “I don’t know how we are going to pay that back.”
The rich rules over the poor, and the borrower is the slave of the lender. — Proverbs 22:7