On 18 February 2020, the Royal Oceania Institute (ROI) co-hosted a closed roundtable with Chatham House as part of the project ”Indo-Pacific strategies: The view from seven countries’. The US, France, India, Japan and Tonga all had local partners engaged in the project. The roundtable with the Tongan policymaking and strategic communities took place in Nuku’alofa, Tonga.
By Lady Fane Fakafanua, Director of Operations, Royal Oceania Institute, Tonga
Strategic competition is increasing in the Indo-Pacific, and island nations of Oceania such as Tonga are now balanced between traditional allies from the West and new friends in the East. Major powers are vying for geostrategic security interests and for the support of the 14 island nations that each possesses a United Nations vote. There are only five resident diplomatic missions in Tonga: Australia, New Zealand, China, Japan and most recently, the UK. The geographical proximity of Australia and New Zealand to Tonga has ensured their steady presence on the island since the 1970s. Tonga’s acknowledgment of the ‘One China Policy’ in 1998 abruptly concluded a 26-year relationship with Taipei in favour of Beijing. Japan’s establishment of an embassy in 2009 solidified an already long-standing relationship between the imperial family of Japan and the royal family of Tonga. The UK, having left Tonga 14 years ago, returned in 2020 with renewed interest, spurred by Brexit.
The sentiment in Tonga towards recent developments in the Indo-Pacific is varied and optimistic. While there is an apparent power struggle in the region between the US and its allies and China, an imbalance of presence exists on the ground. The US maintains a long-standing and historical relationship with Tonga, primarily through defence cooperation and the Peace Corps; however, there is little to show for it, in large Local partner perspective: Oceania’s era of opportunities 6 Indo-Pacific strategies: The view from seven countries – Tonga part because there is no permanent diplomatic presence in Tonga with which to engage. A sizeable Tongan diaspora exists throughout the US, and this supports the general positive outlook and familiarity towards America. Yet, in practice, the US falls short of creating any real modern impression with the general public in Tonga, as loyalty and ties with the West forged in the First and Second World Wars become less relevant among islanders.
However, an opportunity for the US to re-engage in Tonga would be warmly welcomed, especially through the establishment of a resident diplomatic mission. The noticeably weak US public perception towards Tonga is further exacerbated and eclipsed by the highly publicized focus of other countries on Tonga. High-level visits in recent years, such as by the then crown prince, now Emperor Naruhito and Empress Consort Masako of Japan, the visit by the UK’s Prince Harry in 2018, and the Tongan King’s state visit to China in 2019, highlight that it is not just Tonga’s immediate neighbours that want better relations with the kingdom.
China’s pervasive influence has penetrated almost every corner of Tonga, and for the most part Tongans accept this as the new norm. China Aid signs scattered throughout the islands ensure that people are reminded of China’s persistent presence and generosity. The same holds across Oceania. If China has diplomatic relations with an island country, it will also have a mission and be actively engaged in that nation’s capital. Additionally, unlike the difficulty Tongans have in travelling to Australia, New Zealand and the US, China has reciprocated a visa waiver policy with Tonga, allowing for a free flow of travel for Chinese and Tongan citizens.
Since Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s upgrade of India’s 1990s ‘Look East Policy’ to an ‘Act East Policy’ in 2014, India’s global profile has risen more than in previous decades. With a new focus on the IndoPacific region and with ample room for engagement, India only has to pick low-hanging fruits to gain merit in Tonga. Tongans’ impressions of India are of a large developing country with applicable and cheaper solutions suitable for developments in energy, agriculture, information technology, medicine and more. While India has long had roots in Fiji, the ongoing and highly publicized internal friction between the Indo-Fijians and native Fijians limits India’s opportunities for growth in the region. India’s reliance on knowledge and understanding of the region through the lens of Fiji is due for reassessment, especially as countries like Tonga show a keen interest in deepening relations with them. As with the US, there is limited Indian diplomatic presence in most Pacific Island countries, including Tonga. A permanent presence, no matter how small, would go a long way towards helping both sides figure out how to work together effectively.
The UK’s resurgence in Tonga after a 14-year gap promises a more in-depth relation for the two countries. Tonga enjoys a very close bond with the UK having been allies in the World Wars, with ties between the royal families as well as visa waivers for travel. Looking ahead to its re-establishment in Tonga, the UK will need to set deep roots to understand first-hand the unique complexities of Tonga.
Japan’s firm standing in Tonga is exemplified by all its donor activities in the country, through JICA, Grant Aid and numerous high-level visits from the Japanese imperial family. Relations continue to strengthen yearly, and both Tonga and Japan enjoy close people-to-people exchanges, mostly for rugby and education.
The outward look and hope for Tonga for the next four years is clear; the desire is to create new engagements and deeper commitments with already existing old friends. Through increased diplomatic presence, these would pave clearer paths for countries like India and the US.