As with many smaller countries in the Indo-Pacific, Tonga is trying to deftly balance external pressures to achieve the maximum possible strategic independence.
Oceania’s strategic context
Oceania covers around one-sixth of the planet’s surface, and strategically is the front line between Asia and America. The area saw some of the hardest-fought battles of the Second World War, and is the location of critical military installations, including those on Guam. It is dotted with an estimated 10,000 islands, composing more than 20 countries and territories, many independent, but some with political associations with larger nations such as the US, France, UK and New Zealand. As each habitable island can claim up to a 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone, some countries cover enormous areas.
From a Western strategic perspective, once US and UK interest in Oceania waned after the end of the Cold War, Five Eyes partners Australia and New Zealand ‘kept watch’ over the central and southern part of the region (often referred to as Melanesia and Polynesia, and including countries such as Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Fiji and Samoa). The northern part (including the US Freely Associated States of Palau, the Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia), still have substantial US engagement, as well as growing Japanese engagement.
Tonga’s Indo-Pacific policy development
The Oceania field research centred on Tonga for reasons outlined in the introduction. Tonga switched diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China in 1998, reportedly following Beijing’s support of Tonga’s membership in the United Nations. The government of Tonga has a substantial loan from China and has signed up to the BRI. There is continued Chinese interest in major infrastructure projects in the kingdom, including a ‘slipway’ (China is keen to develop ports across the region, potentially for dual use).
Tonga is a clear example of increased strategic interest in Oceania, with the UK reopening its diplomatic mission there, Japan stepping up military engagement, and the US offering the country a partnership with the Nevada National Guard.
The attention from China provoked reaction. Tonga is a clear example of increased strategic interest in Oceania, with the UK reopening its diplomatic mission there, Japan stepping up military engagement, and the US offering the country a partnership with the Nevada National Guard. In response to all the interest, Tonga is actively trying to protect its strategic autonomy, including by developing its first defence white paper.
Roundtable and interview summary
Tongan participants said that part of the value of increased Chinese interest was that it also brought increased interest from the US, UK, France, Japan and others. That surge in interest gave Tonga more options overall, allowing it to try to find the balance between partnerships and independence that would most benefit the Tongan people. To a certain degree, this approach was echoed in many of the smaller and medium-sized Indo-Pacific nations, which similarly considered themselves primarily as ‘balancers’ as opposed to ‘weights’.
The ‘China loan’
Tonga is one of the countries regularly referred to in other capitals as being a ‘victim’ of Chinese predatory loans. Tongan participants perceived it differently. When one Tongan participant wondered if the loan could negatively affect Tongan strategic independence, the response from another participant was that the way to deal with the loan was for Tongans to pay their taxes. What surfaced at the roundtable was that the Tongan tax collection system was inefficient. One particularly ineffective area of collection involved the estimated 90 per cent of the Tongan retail sector that is controlled by ethnic Chinese. The IT tax system the government was considering buying from the West was costly, at close to $10 million. It was mooted that perhaps a cheaper system, from India for example, would be more viable (and even perhaps form part of development assistance). In other words, if the US or others were concerned about the strategic implications of Tonga’s China loan, they could help by providing affordable IT for tax collection. Participants said that partners often came in with their own ideas of what sort of ‘aid’ Tonga should have but rather it was this level of granular understanding of local needs that was necessary, if there were to be effective partnerships that enhanced domestic security and strategic independence.
Using Tonga to impress someone else
There was a perception that some countries wanted to use their self-declared access in Tonga to improve their positions with a third country. Specifically, Australia and New Zealand’s increased interest seemed to be largely reactions to growing Chinese interest and, by extension, a by-product of Canberra and Wellington’s relationships with Washington. When, for example, a group of Australians told Tongan policymakers they were there to help them with security, the perception was that actually Australia wanted closer security ties with Tonga to give Canberra leverage in its own relationship with Washington.
Similarly, the perception was that the UK return to Tonga, while welcome, was also linked to China, specifically amid concerns that Five Eyes partners Australia and New Zealand had ‘dropped the ball’ in Oceania, leaving an opening for the UK to return as a more valuable intelligence partner to the US – something that could enhance London’s post-Brexit position. UK outreach suited Tongan policymakers and strategists, as they preferred to work with what they perceived to be larger powers directly, be that London or Washington. However, it was also said that if the UK did not support the Pacific Islands’ priorities, such as climate change, this could weaken the relationship.
Tonga–US versus Tonga–China relations
Participants said that there were deep soft power and familial links between Tonga and the US, as well as increasingly strong Tonga–US ties in defence (the Tongan military served alongside the US in Iraq and Afghanistan). However, a point that came up repeatedly was that there was no permanent US diplomatic presence in Tonga. The lack of US diplomatic representation was perceived as a barrier to a range of potential areas of engagement, including business-to-business development, visa access, educational opportunities, exchanges of high-level visits, and security ties. Conversely, China had a very large embassy in the Tongan capital, provided easy access to visas, had Tongan-speaking staff, offered frequent training courses for Tongan government officials, and more besides.
In general, there was a strong desire on the Tongan side for closer, and broader, ties with the US. However, the perception was that, until the US ‘shows up’ by having a permanent representative in the country, Washington was not serious about Tonga. As one participant put it, ‘The question we ask the US is: “where are you?”.’ Similar sentiments about the US were found in other countries in Oceania.
The value of having diplomatic representation
The difference that having a local diplomatic mission makes could be seen with the Tonga–Japan relationship. Japan has made Oceania a priority, and it has a full embassy in Tonga. There were said to be strong personal relationships between the Royal House of Tonga and the Imperial House of Japan, and each attended the other’s recent coronations.
Japanese influence was said to be subtle but evident in Tonga. The soroban was taught in Tongan schools, with an annual nation-wide competition. Among participants, the training and scholarships offered by Japan were valued and Japanese development projects were considered to be some of the most efficient and well-targeted in the country. They included projects that might otherwise have involved Chinese companies and loans, such as the capital’s main ferry terminal, an inter-island ferry, upgrades to the main hospital, and state-of-the-art solar power systems. In that way, while Japan’s engagement seemed apolitical, it functioned to obviate a political issue.
Role as a ‘balancer’
As a ‘balancer’, the perception was that Tonga’s future was partly determined by the actions of others. In the absence of a major engagement by the US or an expanded one by Japan (or a new partner such as India), participants foresaw being increasingly pressured to choose between economic and security ‘integration’ with Australia and New Zealand, or alignment with Beijing. Neither option appealed to participants.
Participants were actively looking for other ways to bolster Tongan strategic independence. In this context, they were most interested in the potential for growing relations with India. The perception was that India is linguistically and culturally compatible and at a similar economic level to Tonga but, being larger, had made advances in areas that would benefit Tonga, including climate change adaptation and resilience. It was seen as cheaper than the West, and more culturally compatible than China. Already, Tonga has sent patients to India for healthcare and was involved in the International Solar Alliance, and participants were pleased with both. A participant involved in humanitarian assistance said that if he asks Australia or New Zealand for tents, three months later they will arrive in Tonga with the labels ‘made in India’.
The barriers to developing the relationship with India have been mainly caused by limited direct engagement. There is no effective Tongan diplomatic representation in India and no Indian representation in Tonga.
To date, the barriers to developing the relationship with India have been mainly caused by limited direct engagement. There is no effective Tongan diplomatic representation in India and no Indian representation in Tonga. However, it was a growing priority for Tongan participants. Their strategic assessment was that strong Tonga–India relations might seem to undercut some of the economic primacy of Australia and New Zealand, and would likely provoke pushback from Canberra and Wellington as they were trying to put in place trade agreements that would privilege Australian and New Zealand access. The Tongans hoped it would be realized that deeper economic engagement with other more compatible economies such as India would loosen China’s economic grip on Tonga, contributing to overall regional security.
Tongan policymakers are pragmatic and view the increased jostling for influence in Tonga largely to their advantage for the moment. While there is some internal division over engagement with China, there are also divisions over engagement with Australia and New Zealand. However, policymakers are used to adapting to changing geopolitics and so are less concerned with uncertainty. While not exactly hedging, they are keeping their options open, and are hoping that increased interest in the Indo-Pacific will result in more engagement from the US, Japan, UK and especially India.
China is deeply embedded in many of the countries of Oceania, including Tonga. However, COVID-19 resulted in the closing of many borders in the region and slowed the strategic push from established actors including China, Australia and New Zealand. This has left an opening for new policies and new partners (including perhaps the US and Japan) to come to the fore, especially around areas of core importance to the region such as climate change adaptation, transport, communication, energy and trade.
If there is a genuine attempt to understand the perceptions and operational realities of the region, there is an opportunity to enhance domestic economic and human security in the nations of Oceania, leaving them more able to withstand external pressures. Conversely, if current trends continue unabated, the countries of Oceania will find it harder and harder to maintain their balanced position, and some are likely to tip into Beijing’s camp.