Micro-states, mega stakes?

What aid delivery in Tonga reveals about power competition in the Indo-Pacific

The humanitarian sector, eager to go digital, is now delivering “contactless aid”. The term, however, does not refer to any sort of innovative payment method. It has rather been coined to describe the latest relief operations taking place in tsunami-hit Tonga in the midst of the covid19 pandemic. 

The eruption of undersea volcano Hunga Tonga Hunga Ha’apai on January 15 th devastated the archipelago, leaving its 107 000 inhabitants in dire need for food, shelter and drinking water, as volcanic ashes contaminated aquifer sources. Tongans have also been cut off from the outside world for more than five weeks, since natural hazards severed underwater communication cables.

Relief operations have further been complicated by covid19. The Pacific monarchy had adopted strict quarantine measures to avoid the spread of a virus it had managed to contain until recently, with only one case reported in two years. Islanders have traditionally been weary of Western-brought diseases that have had a devastating impact on the country in the past. In addition, international relief efforts were slowed down as several humanitarian teams contracted the virus in the meantime. An Australian plane, for instance, had to be turned down when it was discovered that staff members got contaminated. Things were not much better on the ship that had been sent in parallel. 23 crew members tested positive for covid19 and similar situations have also taken place in Japan.

Because of the simultaneous need to combat the pandemic, humanitarian supplies had to be unloaded with a wealth of sanitary precautions. Foreign crews were thoroughly disinfected before any operations and each cargo was placed in isolation for three days despite the urgency of needs. But most importantly, there was no direct contact between islanders and humanitarian aid workers. Contactless-ness is not the only particularities of relief efforts in Tonga. Humanitarian operations have also been described as part of broader geostrategic competition between actors with an eye on the Pacific. Particularly telling were the words of former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd who on January 19th tweeted: “Australia must be first and foremost giving assistance to Tonga. Failing that China will be there in spades”,.

Rudd refers to how China, among other states, utilises the provision of foreign aid to gain the favors of small Pacific states.  As the so-called Indo-Pacific region appears to gain importance in current geopolitics, China actively provides humanitarian or development aid to pacific countries. For most of them, the main source of foreign aid comes from Beijing, which invests generously in infrastructures and telecommunications. In the case of Tonga, for instance, China funded – and built with its own workers – the new St George royal palace. Chinese aid often comes without the counterparts Western donors usually require, such as democratization or a greater respect for human rights, and it also leads countries into yet another cycle of aid dependency.

Tonga joined the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative in 2018. Like other Pacific Island Countries (PICs) such as the Solomon Islands in 2020 or the Kiribati the previous year, Tonga has switched its diplomatic relations from Taiwan to the People’s Republic of China. The latter’s engagement with Tonga, however, holds little benefit in terms of resources or economic gain. What interest does Beijing thus have in seeking rapprochement with the Polynesian archipelago? Of great attractiveness is Tonga’s geographical position, strategically located in the path of a major maritime corridor. As analysts and politicians have explained, the centre of gravity of the global economy has shifted from the Atlantic to the “Indo-Pacific”, emerging as a hub for global trade and energy supply.

Moreover, the kingdom is located within what has been described as the third island chain of the Pacific. Island chains theory is a security concept that highlights the importance of islands in affirming or protecting an actor’s presence within a certain space by linking landmasses together. Important undersea cables between Australia, New Zealand and the USA are further found in the Tongan Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Their EEZs are another main asset of Pacific states: they may have small populations and territories, but their often huge territorial waters guarantee important fishing reserves.

The “Indo-Pacific” concept, though contested, has seen a rise in recent years. It recognizes an increased connectivity between the Indian and Pacific oceans and highlights the growing importance of the region in global geopolitics. As the German Institute for Global and area studies explains, “the Indo-Pacific is a not a coherent world region but a strategic space in which China and the USA as well as other regional and extra-regional actors, compete for influence”. While all have different priorities, each stresses important and growing economic and security-related connections between the Pacific and the Indian Ocean region. A shared concern amongst most players in the region is the rising influence of China. Other powers, afraid of “losing” the Pacific seek the crucial collaboration of smaller state to achieve a multipolar order in a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific”.

While China – and others – courts small Pacific states, hoping to develop military bases on their turquoise atolls, PICs seek to exert autonomy and agency, not only in the region but also on the global stage. Based on the idea of a “Blue-Pacific”, they have attempted to forge a collective pan-Oceanic identity that reflects their shared interests as custodians of that space. Strongly affected by climate-related issues, they have emphasized their desire to lead sustainable ocean governance. “The single-greatest security threat”, Pacific Islands Forum asserted in its 2018 Boe Declaration, is not China but climate change.

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