COMMENTARY: Will Tongans ever be grateful for China and America’s   efforts to win friends in the islands?

COMMENTARY: As China and the United State struggle for dominance in the Pacific, it seems that the people of Tonga are not satisfied with anything the big powers do.

People in Tonga waiting to go aboard the Chinese Navy Hospital Ship, the Peace Ark docked at Vuna Wharf. Photo/’Elaiakimi Kolomalu

As we reported recently, the United States has made a major effort to court the smaller Pacific Islands with the re-establishment of embassies and the re-emergence of the Peace Corps.

High ranking visits by US officials such as Secretary of State Antony Blinken and meetings with the Tongan government have signalled a willingness to re-engage diplomatically. And yet some Tongans are not so happy about the newly US embassy in Nuku’alofa because an immigration service has yet to be established. People still have to travel to Fiji to file their application which costs them a lot.

Perhaps they should be patient and see what services are actually provided before being critical.

Meanwhile, Tongans have been able to see a very visible expression of China’s efforts in the presence of the Chinese navy medical ship Peace Ark at Vuna wharf on Friday. While her tour of the Pacific will have been planned long ago, it was interesting that she arrived just after the visit by the US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, who criticised China’s activities in the Pacific.

Our photo was taken at the Vuna wharf and shows Tongans waiting to go on for medical assistance. People from all over Tongatapu and the outer islands travelled to see the Chinese health professionals.

The sight of so many Tongans gathering in peace to welcome the Chinese (and no doubt because they really needed their medical assistance) should not disguise the fact that there has been ongoing resistance and resentment against the presence of the Chinese in Tonga since they started arriving three decades ago.

The scandal of the corrupt sale of passports and the 2006 Nuku’alofa riots were just the worst expressions of this resentment. However, the Chinese are working hard in Tonga to help the economy. Should they only receive such unwelcoming treatment and violence?

In 2015 the late Prime Minister ‘Akilisi Pōhva told an audience in Auckland that Tongans should copy the Chinese. This is what we wrote at the time:

“Hon. Pōhiva told the audience he regarded those Chinese who lived in the kingdom as Tongans. He said there was no choice but to treat the Chinese as brothers and sisters. Hon. Pōhiva said Tongans should copy Chinese lifestyles and standard of living as their hard working attitude would help Tonga’s economy. He said the Chinese went to bed late at night, but were the first to get to work in the morning while some Tongans spent all night drinking kava and sleeping the next day.”

Perhaps the late Prime Minister’s vision will take a while to become reality. He certainly became concerned later on at how deeply in debt to China Tonga had become and the enormous effect paying off the debt would have on the economy.

One wonders whether concerns about the serious health issues in Tonga could be used by the Chinese Communist Party as a political tool to change the Tongan mindset about its people. Tongan people are top on the world list of countries which are unhealthy. The reality, however,  is that Tonga benefits from these visits, at least in the short term.

The last time the Peace Ark was in the kingdom was on its 2018-2019 voyage when it visited  Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, Fiji and  Tonga  before sailing to the Caribbean and Central America. Medical staff saw 50,884 patients and performed 288 operations on the voyage. The Peace Ark was launched in 2007 and is known as the Daishan Dao when operating in a navy role.

The Royal Australian Navy journal Semaphore described the visits by navy hospital ships as ‘Medical diplomacy.’ This means they are used to improve their country’s image on the international scene by providing medical care to those in need.

Semaphore quoted the Peace Ark’s then commanding officer, Rear Admiral Bao Yuping, as saying the ship visited less-developed nations to help people in desperate need and let the local people ‘know more about China, the Chinese military and Chinese navy’ thereby executing a vital medical diplomacy mission.

It should also be borne in mind that the United States Navy is also playing its part in hospital ship diplomacy. In March the US Navy agreed to a request by Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare to have its hospital ship, USNS Mercy, dock in Honiara during the November 2023 Pacific Games.

It seems that both sides will continue to use floating hospitals to prove what good friends they are to the Pacific Islands for some time to come.

For more information

Sometimes when a business is growing, it needs a little help.

Right now Kaniva News provides a free, politically independent, bilingual news service for readers around the world that is absolutely unique. We are the largest New Zealand-based Tongan news service, and our stories reach Tongans  wherever they are round the world. But as we grow, there are increased demands on Kaniva News for translation into Tongan on our social media accounts and for the costs associated with expansion. We believe it is important for Tongans to have their own voice and for Tongans to preserve their language, customs and heritage. That is something to which we are strongly committed. That’s why we are asking you to consider sponsoring our work and helping to preserve a uniquely Tongan point of view for our readers and listeners.


Latest news

Related news