Antony Blinken, the United States secretary of state, has pledged to step up support for Pacific nations and reiterated a warning about the perils of “predatory” Chinese investment as he dedicated a new embassy in the island nation of Tonga.
Blinken’s visit to Nuku’alofa on Wednesday makes him the first US Secretary of State to pay an official visit to Tonga and comes as Washington ramps up efforts to counter China’s growing influence in the region.
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“We’re a Pacific nation,” Blinken told his hosts while pledging support for projects important to them. “We very much see the future in the Indo-Pacific region.”
“We really understand what is a priority for the people here,” he said, citing issues like climate change, development and illegal fishing. “There are a long list of things that we’re working on together, but it’s all driven by focusing on what’s concrete, what can really make a difference in people’s lives.”
But Blinken also had a barbed warning about aid from Beijing, saying it often comes with strings attached.
“As China’s engagement in the region has grown, there has been some – from our perspective – increasingly problematic behaviour,” Blinken said.
He claimed China had been behind “some predatory economic activities and also investments that are done in a way that can actually undermine good governance and promote corruption”.
Tonga, a Polynesian archipelago of about 100,000 people, is the latest in a string of Pacific island states being targeted in a renewed US diplomatic push.
The new US embassy in the capital Nuku’alofa was officially opened in May but Blinken’s hosts said his visit signalled Washington’s renewed interest in the region.
“His presence here today is a testament to the fact that our partnership is growing from strength to strength,” said Tongan Prime Minister Hu’akavemeiliku Siaosi Sovaleni, welcoming a “shared respect for democracy, rule of law and the rights and freedoms of others”.
After Tonga, Blinken will head to Wellington, New Zealand, where he will attend the Women’s World Cup match between the US and the Netherlands. He will have meetings with New Zealand officials and move on to Brisbane, Australia, for meetings with US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and their Australian counterparts on July 28-29.
The trip is Blinken’s third to the Asia-Pacific in the past two months – following a visit to China last month and a visit to Indonesia for talks with Southeast Asian officials just last week.
It comes days after the State Department notified Congress that it plans a huge increase in diplomatic personnel and spending for facilities at new US embassies in the Pacific islands.
The update to Congress, which was obtained by The Associated Press news agency, pointed out that China has permanent diplomatic facilities in eight of the 12 Pacific island nations that the US recognises and said Washington needs to catch up.
The department told legislators it envisions hiring up to 40 staffers over the next five years for each of four recently-opened or soon-to-be-opened embassies in the Pacific.
Those include the embassy in Nuku’alofa and an embassy in Honiara, Solomon Islands, that opened in January. There are also planned embassies in Port Vila, Vanuatu, and Tarawa, Kiribati. Currently, there are only two temporary American staffers each in Honiara and Nuku’alofa.
At each of those posts, the department said it will spend at least $10m for start-up, design and construction.