The small South Pacific nation of Tonga has suffered massive destruction from a volcanic eruption almost two weeks ago.
The initial Australian response has been effective, and wisely delivered in close association with New Zealand. A word of explanation is needed on the importance of that association.
The population of Tonga is around 105,000. The number of people who identify as Tongans, or with Tongan heritage, in New Zealand is over 80,000. The number in Australia is around 10,000 – to which can be added around 5,000 Tongan seasonal workers who seems to be principally helping the South Australian fruit growing sector.
Sadly of all our Pacific neighbours, Tonga has fallen under China's influence more than any other, with the possible exception of the Solomon Islands. Tonga's GDP is probably no more than $500 million, yet one debt to China alone is over $100 million – a debt Tonga simply cannot afford to repay.
I have noticed that in recent months the New Zealand Labour Greens Government has expressed concern about the impact of "debt trap diplomacy" on South Pacific nations. The issue, as well as climate change, has been elevated to the top of New Zealand's regional policy priorities.
Australia should be welcoming this, and talking to New Zealand about how we can work closely together to address the reality of China's "debt trap diplomacy" in our region.
.In recent years, New Zealand has been focussing on developing its trade links with China. This important policy priority change may well result in China taking action not dis-similar to what Australia has been enduring.
What Australia needs to do is to discuss with New Zealand a joint "proportionate" response to China's growing influence – and debt trap diplomacy – in our region.
Our initial response to the tragic position in Tonga today is hard to fault. The same can be said for New Zealand with the defence forces of both nations leading the way in providing emergency assistance.
So far the China response has been, to put it mildly "missing."
A telephone call from President Xi to the King of Tonga and a small cash donation seems to be the sum total – so far.
Tonga is a constitutional monarchy and a parliamentary democracy, and a member of the Commonwealth. The influence of Christianity is well above 90 per cent.
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