By Mar-Vic Cagurangan
The United States on Wednesday officially launched its embassy in Tonga, stamping its footprint in the tiny kingdom as part of Washington’s efforts to boost its presence and counter China’s advances in the Pacific island region.
“We’ve had a long relationship with Tonga, but we finally have a full-time diplomatic presence with an embassy,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken during the dedication of the U.S. embassy in Nuku’alofa, Tonga’s capital city.
While noting the White House’s commitment “to forging a new era” in its partnership with Tonga, Blinken advised the Polynesian nation to be wary of its dealing with China.
He warned of China’s “predatory economic activities” and “investments that are done in a way that can actually undermine good governance and promote corruption.”
During a press conference in Nuku’alofa, Blinken said the U.S. is concerned about the lack of transparency on China’s investments and the debt situation of the Pacific islands.
He said it is imperative to ensure the “autonomy of aid recipients so that there aren’t political strings attached to any investments that they make.”
Tonga Prime Minister Hu'akavemeiliku Siaosi Sovaleni said his government does not have any concern over its debt status with China. "We have started officially to actually start paying off our debt to China," he said.
Tonga and China established their diplomatic relations in 1998, and some observers view the U.S. as a Johnny-come-lately.
The U.S. embassy’s opening marked “a major step to build up our engagement in Tonga,” Blinken said. "It's a testament to our strong ties, the dedication of our people, and the unlimited potential of our relationship,"
Blinken visited Tonga for the first time, a strategic move considering that the South Pacific nation will assume the chairmanship of the Pacific Islands Forum next year.
Tonga comprises 171 islands, 45 of which are inhabited. It has a population of 106,000.
Besides Tonga, the U.S. has also opened its embassies in the Solomon Islands, Kiribati and Vanuatu, all of which are diplomatically aligned with China.
“Countries make their sovereign decisions about with whom they want to do business or seek investment or assistance,” Blinken said.
While the U.S. recognizes sovereign decisions, the state secretary said, “We’re concerned about some of the implications in the way that some of this investment is done.”
The U.S. acknowledges China’s increasing clout in the region, hence the ramped-up engagements to keep pace.
“I think one of the things that we’ve seen is that as China’s engagement in the region has grown, there has been some, from our perspective, increasingly problematic behavior,” Blinken said.
He cited for example China’s “assertion of unlawful maritime claims,” and the militarization of disputed features in the South China Seas.
“I would hope that, whether it’s China or anyone else, we all do this according to the highest standards, and as I said, we have a race to the top, not a race to the bottom,” Blinken said.
The U.S. raised its flag for the first time in Tonga during the embassy's opening on May 10. The White House later appointed Ambassador Marie Damour to head the U.S. diplomatic mission in the Polynesian nation.
Hu'akavemeiliku welcomed the United States' presence in his country.
"There is a clear indication to us of the desire and commitment by the United States of America to strengthen relations between our two countries," he said. The establishment of the U.S. embassy and his presence here today is a testament to the fact that our partnership is growing from strength to strength."
During his visit, Blinken announced the return of the Peace Corps mission to Tonga.
“U.S. Embassy Tonga has already hit the ground running,” Blinken said. “We know it’s important to have a permanent American ambassador directly assigned to, living in, Tonga. And we’re working with urgency to make that happen.”