Comment: Stop grovelling to the Chinese government


The Tongan government must stop grovelling to the Chinese government.

Last week the Tongan government made a big fuss about China’s donation to Tonga in the wake of Cyclone Ian. The Chinese government donated TP$10,000, the equivalent of $NZ6522.

The New Zealand government gave Tonga $NZ500,000, but did not rate the extravagant praise heaped on the Chinese by Tongan authorities.

Neither was there any special thanks for Australia, which donated Aus$200,000. France also  gave relief aid for the cyclone.

The actions of the Tongan government were immature, undiplomatic and unwise.

Further reading: Government of the People’s Republic of China donates emergency supplies for Ha’apai

The reasons for the government’s behaviour are quite clear, however. It is massively in debt to China, and cannot repay its loans.

It has asked China to be lenient and it seems it will do anything to be nice to the Chinese government, even if it means insulting its traditional Pacific partners, New Zealand and Australia.

The Tongan government website reported that a ceremony had been held to acknowledge the Chinese donation.

It described China’s $NZ6522 donation as “a significant contribution to providing shelters for tens of thousands of people who have been displaced by the cyclone.”

Further reading: Tonga snubs New Zealand, Australia

The website also praised the Chinese communities of Tonga who have continued “to show their support towards the people of Ha’apai in providing food supplies and water.”

The Tongan government’s behaviour has unnecessarily politicised the issue of aid.

Tonga’s Islands of Ha’apai are struggling to cope with the devastation wrought by the category five cyclone.

Almost all houses on the islands have been damaged, with some villages completely destroyed.

However, the Tongan government has been slow to ask for help.

The New Zealand media blasted the kingdom’s government for not quickly asking for help from New Zealand so money would be available immediately after the cyclone.

The Tongan government said it wanted to assess the extent of the damage before applying for assistance and has only just officially asked for help.

Further reading: Relief effort underway in Tonga (Australian Network News)

Last week New Zealand’s Scoop news site quoted Auckland Tongan Advisory Council community head Melino Maka as saying: “The Tongan Government should be looking at the people who have suffered in Cyclone Ian, they need to get on with it.”

The row over New Zealand aid to Tonga widened over the weekend.

Many  asked why the New Zealand government wanted Tonga to ask for help first and slammed the delay.

And yet one has to ask how hard it was for the Tongan government to e-mail Wellington and ask for help?

It is normal practice for governments to make formal requests for assistance. In this case the Tongan government seems to have been very slow in acting, even though an RNZAF Orion which flew over the islands in the immediate aftermath of the cyclone reported extensive damage.

Further reading: Tonga won’t ask for help

Tongan community leaders told Kaniva Pacific they were embarrassed by Tonga’s treatment of New Zealand over this and other issues in recent months.

There are 50,000 Tongans in New Zealand, most of them in Auckland and the Tongan economy relies heavily on their remittances.

New Zealand and Australia have always been ready to help the kingdom with development and during natural disasters like Cyclone Ian.

Tonga’s relationship with New Zealand has already been strained in the past two years.

The New Zealand government holds a NZ$8 million grant to support Tongan tourism after the kingdom’s government imported a Chinese airliner that has a questionable safety record. The Tongan government refused to let New Zealanders civil aviation officials  into Tonga to inspect the aircraft.

Deputy Prime Minister of Tonga Hon Vaipulu, who was instrumental on bringing the controversial aircraft to Tonga, told the Tongan media: “We don’t want New Zealand telling us what to do and interfering with our internal matters.”

Further reading: New Zealand accused of bullying

However,  the Tongan Advisory Council in Auckland in September last year said Tongan community in Auckland supported the New Zealand government’s decision to withhold the money.

In 2012 the New Zealand government asked Tonga to return about NZ$300,000 of aid money that had been reported missing.

New Zealand’s behaviour in these cases has been based on the principle of accountability.

Any form of assistance that come from New Zealand to Tonga must be strictly monitored by the New Zealand authorities to make sure they are used according to the purpose of the grant.

Can the same be said about the massive China grant given to Tonga? The Chinese Embassy in Tonga told Radio Australia the money was supposed to help the development of the society and the people of Tonga.

The Tongan Supreme Court has quashed a case brought by opposition leader Akilisi Pohiva in which he alleged that TP$32 million (NZ$ 21 million) of Chinese aid to Tonga was illegally transferred to Princess Pilolevu  and her satellite company, Tongasat. However, Pohiva said late last year that he would file a civil case against the defendants if he lost in the Supreme Court.

Further reading: Tonga says NZ has asked for aid money back

The Chinese aid money has raised many uncomfortable questions.

The Tongan government must deal with these in a rational, mature and logical way. It cannot solve them by fawning on the Chinese government in the vain hope that it will be nice and write off the debt.

It certainly cannot solve them by belittling its major aid donors and traditional partners in the wake of a natural disaster. New Zealand and Australia have responded generously in the aftermath of Cyclone Ian.

As a small nation with a fragile economy, Tonga needs to maintain good relations with countries which have supported the kingdom in the past and will remain its partners in the future.

There is an old saying about not biting the hand that feeds you.Unfortunately, right now it will look to many people as if the Tongan government’s behaviour is a sign that it is quite willing to bite the hands of New Zealand and Australia rather than dealing with the crisis brought on by the Chinese loan.

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