HomeAsiaUS opens embassy in Tonga as it seeks influence in the Pacific

US opens embassy in Tonga as it seeks influence in the Pacific

The United States opened an embassy in Tonga on Wednesday as it continues efforts to bolster its diplomatic presence in Pacific island countries where it competes for influence with China.

The opening of the US embassy in the Tongan capital, Nuku’alofa, follows the reopening of the US embassy in the Solomon Islands in February after an absence of three decades. The United States has also said it wants embassies in Vanuatu and Kiribati in addition to its existing missions in countries like Fiji and Papua New Guinea.

“We are proactively engaging the people of the Pacific,” Tony Grubel, deputy chief of mission at the US embassy in Fiji, said at a flag-raising ceremony in the Tongan capital. “Address your priorities, with you, on your terms.”

China’s influence in the Pacific has flourished for several decades through a combination of increased trade, infrastructure investment and aid as it seeks to isolate Taiwan diplomatically and win allies in international institutions. Solomon Islands and Kiribati switched their diplomatic recognition to China from Taiwan in 2019.

Beijing signed a security pact with the Solomon Islands last year, alarming the United States and allies such as Australia, who fear it could pave the way for a Chinese military presence in the region.

Tongan Acting Prime Minister Samiu Vaipulu (left) and US Deputy Chief of Mission at the US Embassy in Fiji Tony Grubel (center) watch a flag-raising ceremony at the opening of the US embassy in Nuku’alofa, Tonga, on May 10. 2023. Credit: Marian Kupu/BenarNews

Tonga’s interim prime minister, Samiu Vaipulu, said the opening of a US embassy in the Polynesian kingdom of some 100,000 people was a welcome development. It comes ahead of President Joe Biden’s planned stopover in Papua New Guinea on May 22 and meeting with Pacific island leaders.

“Today is a historic day for all of us, one that we have waited for a long time,” he said. The embassy opening “represents an important milestone in Tonga’s history and is warmly welcomed by Her Majesty’s Government.”

Present at the ceremony were the High Commissioners of the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Australia and representatives of the Japanese embassy. The Chinese embassy did not send a representative.

Tonga’s government debt to China, as a percentage of the island country’s total government debt, is the highest among the Pacific island countries, followed by Samoa and Vanuatu.

In 2018, Tonga’s then-Prime Minister ‘Akilisi Pohiva publicly urged other Pacific island countries to collectively pressure Beijing for debt relief.

Like the Solomon Islands embassy opening in Honiara, the Tongan embassy event appeared to be a soft launch.

A State Department statement said it would pave the way for the US to send more diplomats and resources to Tonga “including the possible appointment of a resident ambassador to Tonga.”

In the Solomon Islands, the United States has renamed the small office of its consular services agency the embassy and has yet to name an ambassador.

Grubel said the development agency USAID is working on programs relevant to Tonga.

“USAID continues to address the existential threat posed by climate change as a top priority, in addition to tackling challenges related to water security, infectious disease, economic development, and the protection of maritime resources,” he said.

BenarNews is an RFA-affiliated news service.

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