Claims that China wants to establish a naval base in Vanuatu have revived memories of Prime Minister ‘Akilisi Pōhiva’s warning that the Asian super-power might demand similar facilities in Tonga.
In 2013, when he was leader of the Opposition, Hon. Pōhiva warned that China might demand Tonga let it open a naval base if the government tried to have its massive debt written off.
Vanuatu owes China a large amount of money and there have been allegations that government may hope to strike a deal with China on the naval base in return for forgiveness of debt; the same threat Hon. Pōhiva warned of five years ago.
Last month the Reserve Bank said Tonga would start repaying the principal of its loan from China this year, but did not release any other details.
Tonga and China have had diplomatic relations since 1998. Military relations between the two countries have been relatively low key.
In 2001 the Chinese People’s Daily reported that the two countries had decided to strengthen their “military relations”. In 2008, China provided Tonga with military supplies worth more than TP$900,000. In August 2013, General Wu Changde, Deputy Chief of the PLA General Political Department, led a military delegation to Tonga.
Meanwhile, Cook Islands Finance Minister Mark Brown has told the Cook Islands News his country was unlikely to ever see the Chinese military coming in to take over the country if it was unable to repay its debts to China.
The Cook Islands owes the Exim Bank of China US$34 million.
Naval vessels from New Zealand, Australia and France have regularly visited the Cook Islands.
In 2008 the Cook Islands signed a co-operation agreement on joint maritime surveillance operations with the United States.
China has been increasingly active in the Pacific in the past 20 years.
It has been competing with Taiwan for recognition by Pacific island states and both countries have tried to woo island nations with offers of aid and easy loans. It has been especially active in Fiji.
Western countries have been extremely concerned by China’s expansion. Last year a Chinese naval vessel appeared off the coast of Queensland during joint Australian-US military exercises.
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