Antony Blinken on Wednesday became the first U.S secretary of state to visit Tonga, dedicating a new U.S embassy and warning South Pacific nations about the perils of “predatory” Chinese investment.
As part of a drive to build Washington’s influence across the region and to counter Beijing’s growing clout, Blinken touched down in Nuku’alofa on a diplomatic charm offensive.
“We’re a Pacific nation,” and “we very much see the future in the Indo-Pacific region,” Blinken told his hosts while pledging support on projects that are important to them.
“We really understand what is a priority for the people here,” he said, citing issues like climate change, development and illegal fishing.
“There are a long list of things that we’re working on together, but it’s all driven by focusing on what’s concrete, what can really make a difference in people’s lives.”
But he also had a barbed warning about aid from Beijing — which has increased dramatically in recent years — saying it often comes with strings attached.
“As China’s engagement in the region has grown, there has been some — from our perspective – increasingly problematic behaviour,” Blinken said.
The Secretary also highlighted the United States’ efforts to tackle the climate crisis in the Pacific, including expanding early warning systems and climate information services.
He claimed China had been behind “some predatory economic activities, and also investments that are done in a way that can actually undermine good governance and promote corruption”.
Earlier this year, Micronesia’s then-leader David Panuelo publicly accused China of engaging in harassment and espionage, and bribing members of his cabinet.
Tonga, a Polynesian archipelago of about 100,000 people, is the latest in a string of Pacific island states being targeted in a renewed U.S diplomatic push.
The new U.S embassy in the capital Nuku’alofa was officially opened in May, but Blinken’s hosts said his visit signalled Washington’s renewed interest in the region.
“His presence here today is a testament to the fact that our partnership is growing from strength to strength,” said Tongan Prime Minister Hu’akavemeiliku Siaosi Sovaleni, welcoming a “shared respect for democracy, rule of law and the rights and freedoms of others”.
Blinken spokesperson Matthew Miller said Blinken met today with Prime Minister Hu’akavameiliku Siaosi Sovaleni and Foreign Minister Fekitamoeloa Utoikamanu.
“The two sides had substantive and constructive discussions on key priorities in the bilateral relationship and on a range of global and regional issues.
“Secretary Blinken outlined how the United States is following through on commitments made by President Biden at last year’s historic Summit with Pacific Islands leaders to elevate our diplomatic and development presence and engagement in the region and that President Biden looks forward to hosting Pacific Islands Forum leaders again in Washington this fall.
“Secretary Blinken highlighted recent bilateral advancements between the United States and Tonga, including the opening of the new U.S. Embassy in Nuku’alofa, and the returning of Peace Corps volunteers to Tonga following the end of the COVID-19 pandemic,” he said.
The United States also has plans to open embassies in Vanuatu and Kiribati.
In February, it restored its embassy in Solomon Islands after a 30-year hiatus.
Chinese state-controlled media painted Blinken’s visit as evidence that the United States no longer had confidence in its ally Australia to manage relations with Pacific Island nations.
The United States has been the dominant military force in the South Pacific since World War II.
But the region is increasingly an arena for powers to compete for commercial, political and military influence.
China, the rising military power in the region, has also asserted itself through its expanding diplomatic reach, investment, police training and security deals.
While in Tonga, Blinken also commented on the abrupt removal of Chinese foreign minister Qin Gang from office.
“I wish him well,” Blinken said, while vowing to work with his replacement Wang Yi.
“I’ve also known Wang Yi for more than a decade. I’ve met with him repeatedly,” Blinken said. “I anticipate being able to work well with him as we have in the past.”
“It is important for us to manage this relationship responsibly. That starts with diplomacy, that starts with engaging, and I will work with whoever the relevant Chinese counterpart is,” he said.