Blinken visits Tonga, discusses strategic importance of Pacific region

WELLINGTON, July 26 (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived in the island nation of Tonga on Wednesday, the latest senior U.S. official to visit the South Pacific, and warned of China’s “problematic behaviour” in the region.

China’s growing presence in the region, which saw it sign a security pact with the Solomon Islands last year, has fuelled concern in Washington and Canberra about Beijing’s ambitions and prompted Western aid and increased engagement.

Blinken said at a press conference that the U.S. had no objection to engagements in the region by other countries including China but there were concerns that investments needed to be transparent and undertaken according to the rule of law, with sustainable finance and no strings.

“I think one of the things that we’ve seen is that as China’s engagement in the (Indo-Pacific) region has grown there has been some, from our perspective, increasingly problematic behaviour,” he said.

The comments came after Blinken held talks with Tongan Prime Minister Siaosi Sovaleni on the strategic importance of the Pacific region, ahead of visits to the South Pacific’s two major powers New Zealand and Australia.

Blinken said that the United States was committed to both Tonga and the broader Pacific Islands.

“It is about the partnerships that we believe it’s in our interest to build with countries throughout the Pacific,” Blinken said.

In recent years, China has funded infrastructure and increased their diplomatic presence in the region. China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, undertook a multi-stop tour in the Pacific region last year.

There has, however, been a significant boost in engagement and funding from Western countries to counter this.

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is visiting Papua New Guinea this week before heading to Australia where the largest Australia-US military exercise is due to begin. French President Emmanuel Macron is also in the region visiting French territories, Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu.

One of the bigger concerns is debt levels in the region. Tonga is heavily indebted to Beijing and there have been questions about how Tonga will repay that debt.

Sovaleni said at the press conference that Tonga had this year started to pay down its debt and had no concerns about China and its relationship was currently around development issues such as infrastructure.

Blinken will officially opening the new U.S. Embassy in the capital Nuku’alofa later on Wednesday before flying on to Wellington, New Zealand.

Reporting by Lucy Craymer; Editing by Michael Perry and Stephen Coates

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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