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Commentary: Hey look this way USA — this is the South Pacific

What’s happening in Tonga is a microcosm of China’s expanding global influence and illustrates why the United States is losing ground fast in the Pacific. That is the lead-line to an article published this week in Politico Magazine.

Datelined Nuku’alofa it begins saying, “August 2016 was a sun-swamped winter in the South Pacific and the vanilla business was bad.” The woman who wrote the article, Susannah Luthi, previously reported for Politico in Washington D.C., where she wrote about health care industry lobbying in Congress as well as health care litigation in federal courts.

While living in Tonga on a family vanilla plantation she saw the drought that had wasted the annual crop that brought out machete-wielding farmers to guard what was left of their vines.

And there’s no wonder why they got out their machetes — a kilo of cured vanilla that would have gone for $50 two years earlier had soared to $300.

But amid the distraction she says she almost missed a bigger story that had been growing in broad daylight — the largest building project that Tonga had ever seen.

“One Saturday, at a barbecue on the lagoon, the host asked me why I didn’t try to report a piece for some magazine back home about what he called ‘the Chinese gulag’.” “What gulag?” I said.

And then she discovered what most of us who follow South Pacific news have known for years — the Chinese are here and they’re building huge projects in small Pacific Island states.

 In Tonga a “colossal edifice” to house the Tongan government was going up with all Chinese labor — living segregated from the Tongan community in their ‘gulag’.

The project had been a dream of the late monarch George V, but the $11 million price of the St. George Palace, as it would be dubbed, was not coming out of the Kingdom’s coffers. Instead, it was being funded — and constructed — entirely by Beijing. It was a tiny fraction of the estimated $5 billion China spent on international aid that year, but it equaled 2.6 percent of Tonga’s GDP, according to the Politico article.

“It’s the “gulag” that I’ve often thought about in the nearly five years since I left Tonga. Whenever I read another story about Beijing’s globe-spanning Belt-and-Road Initiative, I think of the blue-jump-suited men. And the headlines about China in the South Pacific just get more frequent. Only recently, China was trying to buy the region’s dominant telecom company, scaring Australia into bidding for it, too,” she wrote.

The Pacific going to China could mean a lot of things in a region whose islands most Americans can’t find on a map: Chinese control of the ocean and its fishing industries, for one thing. But also authority over a sphere that’s greater in size than every country of the world combined — and that the U.S. and its allies have long assumed would stay in their corner through the anchors of New Zealand and Australia.

The writer has some interesting takes on what’s going on in Tonga — and what many fear has been going on in Samoa. 

I met my first ‘red’ Chinese diplomat in Apia in the early 1990s — a woman who told me how right the Chinese one child policy was as I sat beside her at a media luncheon. She turned out to be the Chinese Ambassador to Samoa. 

Anyway the Politico article easily grabbed my attention with all that has developed with the Chinese in Samoa since that time in Apia.

According to the World Bank, China is the single largest creditor in Samoa, accounting for about 40%, or some $160 million, of its external debt.

Reuters wrote in 2018 that China has spent $1.3 billion on concessionary loans and gifts since 2011 to become the Pacific’s second-largest donor after Australia, stoking concern in the West that several tiny nations could end up overburdened and in debt to China.

In 1994, China provided financial assistance to fund the construction of the government office building in Apia. More recently the Chinese government has funded various other Samoan government construction projects.

According to the People’s Republic of China Ministry of Foreign Affairs —China contributed to:

› National Medical Center Phase I;

› National Medical Center Phase II;

› National Broadband Highway Project;

› 4 China-assisted elementary schools;

› Technical cooperation projects in agriculture and medical care;

› The Swim Center;

 › 2,000 energy efficient air-conditioners to save energy and cut emission;

› Medical teams providing free medical services; and

China actively supported Samoa in hosting the Third International Conference on Small Island Developing States in 2014, and was among the first to donate US$500,000 to the relevant UN fund.

Samoa’s Prime Minister at the time Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi was often described as ‘cozying up to China’ but now Samoa’s new prime minister has shelved the US$100 million Beijing-backed port development, calling the project excessive for the small island state.

PM Fiame Naomi Mata’afa said she intended to maintain good relations with China but she had more pressing needs to address.

The proposed construction of the wharf in Vaiusu Bay was a divisive issue in Samoa, playing a part in the April elections where Tuilaepa lost his parliamentary majority and thus the PM post.

And why the concern about China pouring all this money into the South Pacific? The Australian Strategic Policy Institute says China is moving to achieve control over the vital trans-Pacific sea lanes under the guise of assisting with economic development and climate-change adaptation.

Control of the sea lanes — similar to what is feared in the South China Sea area.

In addition, proposed major island-building and development of so-called trans-shipment hubs raise the prospect of Chinese military bases, or, at least initially, potential dual-use facilities, being established right across the center of the Pacific, stretching along the equator for nearly 2,000 miles from Tarawa Atoll to Kiritimati Atoll. China also has a moth-balled satellite tracking station in Kiribati, which may now be reactivated, according to the Aussie report.

They contend these facilities would give China control over the world’s best tuna fishing grounds plus deep-sea mineral resources, and a presence near the US bases at Hawaii, Kwajalein Atoll, Johnston Atoll and Wake Island — placing them directly across the major sea lanes between North America and Australia and New Zealand.

“Vulnerable Pacific island nations and territories are increasingly turning to ‘assistance’ from China because they perceive that their development needs are not being addressed by other partners.” 

Are you listening U.S.A.?

After taking office President Joe Biden beefed up his foreign policy team with several experts on Asia — a move analysts say signaled renewed efforts to raise U.S. standing in a region where China’s influence has been growing for years.

Early on the Biden administration identified China as one of its biggest foreign policy challenges, and stressed the importance of allies in responding to the strategic competition posed by Beijing.

Now with the end of the 20 years long Afghan war, we shall see if the U.S. moves its focus from the Middle East to the Pacific. 

As for the Politico article on Tonga, I loved the title — Meth, Vanilla and ‘Gulags’: How China Has Overtaken the South Pacific One Island at a Time. I emailed them for permission to reprint, but they never replied.  Maybe they didn’t know where American Samoa is or … maybe they’d never heard of us.

Just Google the title to the article, it’s a good read — and the author certainly has heard of Tonga.

(Sources: Politico Magazine, Reuters, Samoa Observer, Australian Strategic Policy Institute, RNZ Pacific, People’s Republic of China Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Samoa News archives)