Silk Road Headlines_15th April, 2020

BRI Trouble in Tonga

With BRI projects delayed all over the COVID-19 world there is one small country where China would like to move things forward, and fast. That country is the Kingdom of Tonga, with about 100.000 inhabitants and 169 islands spread over 700,000 square kilometres of the paradise blue Pacific Ocean.

In a long letter sent on April 14 the Chinese ambassador to Tonga, Mr. Cao Xiaolin, called for “deeper cooperation under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)” and proclaimed that “located on the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, Tonga is an important cooperation partner in BRI.” Cao went on to stress the good relationship between countries, mentioning a state visit by Tonga’s King Tupou VI to China in 2018, where he formally signed on for BRI.

So why is China so eager for Tonga in these viral times? Because some countries, most notably Australia and New Zealand, see the pandemic as an opportunity to win back influence in the Pacific, influence that was lost to China. The tiny islands nations are scared to their corals of the virus and many have closed their gates to all and everything from afar, while simultaneously dealing with a destructive storm. Australia and China are having a feisty aid-competition in the area, with each country shipping masks and other supplies to any island king that wants them [China and Australia target Pacific with corona virus aid].

Tonga is a pearl in the Pacific crown, so the stakes are extra high. The Kingdom is strategically located on the Third Island Chain, it lies on the route of a major shipping lane, and running through its EEZ are juicy submarine communications cables connecting Australia, New Zealand and the United States. The kingdom has long had a sizable Chinese population and Tonga is a good friend in the United Nations.

To keep and expand influence China has used every tool in its influence-building box: aid, gifts, loans, buildings, roads, a stadium, free courses for Tongan government officials, free scholarships for Tongan students, sister city relationships, and a visa-exemption program. China has furthermore expressed the intention to set up a Confucius Institute. The best-known Chinese projects in Tonga are the $11 million St George Palace government building and the $26 million National Convention Center in Port Vila, both paid for by grants from China.

But not all is well. Even before COVID-19 many Tongans started to worry about the country’s debt to China. Tonga owes China's Exim Bank about $158 million, or two-thirds of the country’s total external debt. Furthermore, shop owners are openly angry about Chinese taking over their business and last year local landowners refused a proposal by BRI-favorite China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation (CCECC) to build a five-star hotel on Tanna Island.

The virus has made things worse. In a worrying development for China, Tonga refused an aircraft carrying medical supplies after citizens expressed fears it might bring the virus straight into the country [Tonga cancels aircraft with medical supplies from China]. In an effort to appease the Tongan government, the Chinese embassy announced a grandly named China-Pacific Island Countries anti-COVID-19 Cooperation Fund, worth $1.9 million in total, with $200.000 donated immediately to Tonga for anti-virus preparations.

Whether that is enough is very uncertain. But it does seem sure that BRI-related projects in Tonga will face far more scrutiny in the future.

By Clingendael