China’s Strategic Pivot Towards the South Pacific Island Nation of Tonga

A Hybrid Intelligence Preparation of the Operational Environment (IPOE) Analytical Assessment

Journal of Political Risk, Vol. 5, No. 12, December 2017

By Mark Anthony Taylor

The aim of this research is to critically examine the refocusing of Chinese aid, economic involvement and diplomatic attentions towards the small South Pacific island nation of Tonga.  The research seeks a deeper understanding of China’s behaviour towards Tonga and promotes a reevaluation of how the US and its allies should respond to China’s strategic calculus. China’s actions in Tonga, although appearing benign, represent a cloaked threat to Tonga’s independence, democracy and U.S. regional aspirations.  Furthermore, owing to the comparative strength of the Chinese economic and diplomatic approach, a competitive soft-power response from the US may prove inadequate. In consequence, it may be more advantageous for the US to pursue a heightened hard-power response to ameliorate any potential threat. Through undertaking an analysis of China’s fundamental motivations for the soft-power Tongan pivot and an exploration of the modus operandi employed by China to affect its strategic goals, the project will endeavour to provide a clear answer to the following research question: “Is this Chinese pivot towards Tonga merely an example of cheque-book economic diplomacy, or does it entail a cloaked malignant threat to the security and autonomy of the US and its allies?” Utilising a hybrid adaption of the Intelligence Preparation of the Operational Environment (IPOE) analytic method[1], this project will apply a structured framework in order to probe and reconceptualise the Chinese pivot towards Tonga in an effort to unravel the underlying motivations of China. In line with this approach, the project will firstly scrutinize the situational variables resident in each nation that comprises the terrain of the issue. The significant and unique political, military, economic, social, infrastructure and informational system factors (PMESII) that contribute to the rapid intensification of China/Tongan relations will be explored. From this point, the focus will be turned towards an analysis of the usefulness of the two polar theoretical explanations (liberal and realist) for the current Chinese Course of Action (COA) in Tonga. Lastly, a detailed investigation of the two key Centres of Gravity (COG’s) that underpin and impact upon the China/Tonga relationship will ensue, exploring the cultivation of pro-China sentiment in Tonga and the degree of the US pivot to the South Pacific. The project will draw from a diverse variety of academic publications, expert opinion pieces and news media sources. The analysis reveals that the Chinese strategic pivot into the nation of Tonga superficially appeared to be motivated by benign economic opportunism. However, engagement with Tonga was found to hold a minimal benefit to China in terms of resource supply or economic gain. The major strategic benefits that were found to accrue to China were through the potential securing of Tonga for the establishment of a forward operating military base in the South Pacific. Consequently, China’s pivot may be motivated by concealed Chinese hegemonic designs (the realist perspective) rather than by benign economic opportunism (the liberal perspective). This motivation was found to pose a significant security threat to the US-lead regional order.  Two significant COG’s are bolstering the effectiveness of China’s Tongan pivot. Firstly, China has successfully executed a “hearts and minds” program to facilitate the broad interweaving of pro-China sentiment into the psyche of Tongan society. Secondly, the absence of US attention towards soft-power regional engagement with Tonga has aided China’s pivot. In terms of an effective US response to China’s strategy in Tonga, a revised US soft-power push was assessed as constituting an ineffective strategy due to the resilient China-Tonga relationship that now exists and because of China’s deep aid pockets. Consequently, the evidence points towards the need for a revitalised US hard-power military presence in the region as the most viable option for dampening China’s future militaristic ambitions towards Tonga.

One pa’anga and two pa’anga banknote.
Tonga, Pacific. Credit: Getty Images.

Background

China’s economic soft-power diplomacy policy approach towards Tonga has raised questions in the minds of academics and foreign affairs experts regarding China’s strategic intentions.  Some commentators have advanced liberal theories which describe China’s actions as being largely benign, revolving around its motivation towards economic opportunism. However, realist-oriented commentators have deemed China’s actions to represent a veiled expansionist threat to the interests of the US-lead Western order and an attempt to progress towards Chinese regional hegemony. This research project will assess the comparative merit of each theoretical approach as it applies to the real-world situation in Tonga and progress towards a greater understanding of the COG’s underpinning China’s pivot towards Tonga.

Defining/Evaluating the Operational Environment (Tonga)

The nation of Tonga, despite its small population (105,000 people), presents the analyst with a surprisingly complex and multifaceted operational environment. In order to gain an understanding of the situational terrain underpinning China’s soft-power Tongan pivot, consideration must be given to a spectrum of Tongan geographic, demographic, political, economic and socio-cultural contributory variables.

Although an isolated island nation, Tonga is in a Geographically advantageous position, strategically located within what is regarded as the third island chain of the Pacific and in the path of a major economic sea lane.[2] Major undersea cables between Australia/New Zealand and the US are located in the Tongan Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), passing between Tonga and Fiji. Additionally, Tonga has been allotted legal rights to a significant number of coveted satellite launch slots.[3] The economic conditions in Tonga are characterised by a low GDP ($US430 Million), broad infrastructural malaise, high unemployment and an absence of strategic or mineral resources. The highest proportion of GDP is derived from tourism, fishing, limited agricultural exports and remittances from Tongans living abroad. Tonga relies extensively on foreign aid/loans to augment this limited income stream. It is also experiencing a significant migration pattern trend with native Tongans increasingly emigrating offshore seeking employment opportunities. Concurrently, there is a notable influx of Chinese migrants seeking improved economic prospects in Tonga. On the political front, Tonga has experienced a transition away from diplomatic alignment with former colonial compatriots towards an increasing accommodation of socialist China as the preferred national partner.[4] Tonga has also experienced movement in its religious trends over the last 200 years from mainstream Christianity towards Mormonism. Since the early 1800’s Tongans had broadly embraced Methodist and Catholic faiths. However, beginning in the early 1900’s, the Mormon faith exhibited steady growth, currently accounting for 18% of the Tongan population including notable political figures and members of the royal family. Tonga is also particularly vulnerable to theoretical global climate change owing to its high proportion of low-lying coastal land. Tonga has been particularly vocal in global forums regarding the imperative to address Global warming and the threat of sea level change. Lastly, it has also been subject to recent civil instability and riots instigated by indigenous Tongans frustrated by the loss of control of their retail sector to Chinese immigrants.[5]

Defining/Evaluating the Competitive Environment (China)

In order to better understand the larger picture of China’s soft-power Tongan policy, an understanding must also be acquired of China’s unique national variables that underpin and/or catalyse the pivot (the competitive environment). Arguably, because of China’s increasing pollution problems and the shortage of natural water resources, it is edging towards a domestic food and water resource scarcity crisis. This is fuelling China’s push to secure sources of raw materials outside of China through the utilisation of an increasing number of new diplomatic/trading ties with non-traditional partner nations.[6] Strategic trade policies such as the ‘one belt one road’ and ‘string of pearls’ initiatives have evolved in response to China’s growing need for guaranteeing its resource supply channel strength and diversity.[7] The provision of less conditional tied/untied aid packages (compared to Western aid programs) to new trading partner nations has been a common tactic used by China to foster closer and more binding trade ties.[8] However, some argue that this engenders a form of debt entrapment specifically designed to draw economically vulnerable small nations away from partnerships with the US and its Western allies.[9] [10] This policy approach is characteristic of China’s trade focussed pivot into Tonga whereby the Chinese Government has used a raft of economic interventions including both state and pseudo-state aid provisioning and infrastructural grants.[11]  China has arguably even resorted to encouraging Chinese crime syndicates to emigrate and operate in Tonga as an additional method of intertwining Tonga into China’s economic trade web.[12] Whilst these tactics seem currently based on clever economic rationality, it may be argued that China has alternate motivations. With China being emboldened by a perception of declining US economic capacity and hegemony, it may be preparing the groundwork for its own hegemonic rise.  In recent decades China has undergone rapid, but seemingly benign, economic growth, undertaken a rapid building of military/maritime capacity. This potential rise towards economic/military hegemony has resulted in a groundswell of China/US tensions.[13]  This may be further fuelling China’s push to gain a strategic advantage over the US by attaining increasing influence in nations like Tonga[14] (for reasons to be covered in the COG analysis section of this paper).

Understanding China’s COA in Tonga

It would meet with little opposition to claim that the overarching strategic objective of China is to ensure the nation’s longevity, prosperity, quality of life and autonomy. Consequently, sub-strategies like China’s pivot towards Tonga, serve to undergird this overarching objective. Throughout the literature, opinion is divided regarding China’s underlying strategic intentions in Tonga. In an attempt to explain China’s motivation for pursuing its current COA, some analysts advocate that China’s pivot represents a benign move towards Tonga for reasons of economic opportunism (liberal theoretical perspective). Other analysts purport that the pivot represents a veiled expansionist drive towards challenging the interests of the established US-lead Western hegemonic order (realist theoretical perspective).

COA-1: Benign Economic Opportunism

Arguing from the liberal Perspective, Zhang contends that China’s increased South Pacific focus represents a strategy of mutually beneficial economic engagement which should be welcomingly accommodated, rather than the potential threat of regional domination that should be resisted or contained.[15] Hayward-Jones reasons similarly that there is little evidence that China is engaging in geostrategic competition, instead, it seeks to economically benefit the region. Furthermore, she posits that intentions aside, China lacks the ability to challenge the established US/Australian regional dominance. [16] By and large, the predominant discourse of this liberalist perspective centres around a peaceful China, working towards a symbiotic arrangement between the West, China and the Pacific island nations.[17]

However, China’s strict economic focus on Tonga may only be a transitional strategy, with Tonga currently holding minimal economic value for China owing to its paucity of natural resources. This may point towards a different underlying agenda than simple economic opportunism. Additionally, the new US administration has expressed no direct intention of abandoning the region, instead, resolving to maintain US regional hegemony. In this situation, questions will naturally arise regarding the motivation for China’s Tongan pivot. A likely future outcome will be that any perceived shift in China’s modus-operandi will precipitate a reactionary heightening of US military and economic containment of China. In the same fashion, China’s inherent perception would likely be that the US strategic policy stance will be one of containment. Under such conditions, China would, therefore, be increasingly unlikely to solely pursue peaceful intentions in its Tonga pivot. Instead, a more likely scenario sees China actively pursuing opportunities, such as those offered by a Tonga pivot, to buffer against an imminent US containment stance. Additionally, China’s poor human rights record adds additional grounds for questioning whether China’s Tongan intentions are solely peaceful and altruistic. Whilst past behaviour is no guarantee of future intentions, it does merit a heightened awareness that China may be pursuing a less benign course for its own strategic ends.[18]

COA-2: Malignant Hegemonic Designs

The realist perspective further argues that, historically, China’s doctrinal approaches have consistently promoted the importance of China’s rise to primacy above strategies that promote benign co-existence with existing hegemonic arrangements.[19] This is highlighted in the philosophy of Deng Xiaoping which called for China to tactically hide its capabilities and bide its time for an opportune moment to assert sovereignty.[20] Consequently, recognising that China may be more malevolently driven, Lanteigne asserts that China’s aid provision is not so benevolent an action as it is a tool for competing against the US-lead Western Alliance for the South Pacific island’s affections.[21] Schaare additionally posits that China feeds on the instability present in these small South Pacific Island nations. In such conditions, China is said to operate under the guise of soft-power humanitarian interventions designed to justify its growing regional presence and to help it gain a larger regional foothold.[22]  Hugh White further asserts that despite what appear to be China’s economic motivations, the risk of a larger strategic threat to Western interests should not be ruled out. [23] The 2016 Australian Defence White Paper concurs, alluding to a threat posed by a hostile China seeking a base from which to project force against Australia’s maritime neighbourhood.[24]

Focusing more specifically on Tonga, Langa’oi also asserts that China’s aid is designed to gain diplomatic recognition and political influence in Tonga. She further asserts that this and other soft-power tools which exploit religious and political vulnerabilities have engendered socio-political and economic implications for Tonga, drawn Tonga into greater relational engagement with China and detrimentally undermined the relational influence of Tonga’s traditional Western economic aid partners.[25] Consequently, other realist voices have highlighted the need to counter rising Chinese influence and to ameliorate the potential threat to peace that it poses in the South Pacific.[26] In this vein, Powles and Sousa-Santos assert that the West needs to increase partnership building with island nations in order to proactively curtail China’s burgeoning geostrategic ambitions.[27]  Furthermore, there is a growing recognition that greater focus needs to be placed on improving US military infrastructural preparedness in the South Pacific in order to curtail what are being perceived as malignant Chinese ambitions.[28]

However, a pertinent question remains regarding whether China’s pivot is undergirded by hegemonic intentions.[29] The answer to this may be as simple as China being currently militarily inferior to the US-lead Western alliance and lacking the capacity to support such hegemonic ambitions. Another answer may be found in China’s historical military actions that have been categorised as defensive with an aversion to pursuing risky or aggressive militaristic COA’s. Lastly and more alarmingly, the answer may be that China is playing the “lame duck”, pretending to have only economic aspirations, and as Xiaoping strategised, simply in the process of biding time, waiting to play its real hand when it eventually attains a level of military competitiveness with the US.[30] It is also worth noting that in recent decades, China’s foreign policy has shown signs of increasing assertiveness and decreased concern about maintaining diplomatic goodwill. Pertinent examples of this may be found in China’s establishment of an electronic intelligence-gathering base in Kiribati[31] and a naval port in Djibouti which were both considered a direct challenge to US hegemony. China’s aggressive military annexation of the disputed Islands of the South and East China Sea, artificial island building activities and consequential militarisation of those features display a different pattern of approach, decidedly more belligerent and hegemonic, and not so easily explained away as being China’s desperate grasping for regional economic opportunities. In this vein, China’s current actions in Tonga, despite their seemingly innocuous fascia, may represent the first wave of a more aggressive hegemonic grab for strategic advantage in the Pacific.[32] [33]

Centres of Gravity Analysis

Moving beyond the evaluation of environmental variables and motivational underpinnings, this analysis will posit that two key COG’s fuel/moderate China’s Tongan pivot. 

COG 1: China’s effectiveness at Cultivating Pro-Chinese Sentiment in Tonga

China’s Tongan pivot arguably requires the execution of an effective “hearts and minds” approach through which to propagate receptivity towards China in the psyche of the Tongan populace.

Courting of the Tongan Mormon Church

With the growth of the Mormon Church in Tonga and the associated infiltration into political and ruling circles, opportunities have been afforded the Mormon faith to promote its agenda domestically and internationally. Concurrently, China has reciprocally enlisted the support of the Mormon Church to promote its own strategic agenda in Tonga. The Tongan Mormon Church is intrinsically connected to the international Mormon Church and its aim of spreading Mormon beliefs globally utilising missionary workers.  With China presenting the world’s largest untapped area for religious evangelisation, the Mormon Church has long considered China a coveted, yet completely off-limits, destination for a missionary push.[34] However, with China’s pivot towards Tonga, the motivations of China and the Mormon Church have intersected presenting an opportunity for both to achieve their strategic objectives despite China’s religious exclusion policy. China has sought to gain political and economic influence in Tonga and has potentially seized upon the opportunity to symbiotically establish a nexus with the Mormon Church, capitalising on Mormonism’s newfound influence in Tongan politics and leadership. In return, Tongan missionaries have recently been granted special dispensations for their evangelical work in China, being afforded an extraordinary degree of governmental tolerance, significantly more than has been provided to other religious organisations.[35] However, such religious freedoms are not given without an expectation of reciprocity and Mormon Tongan leaders may be subjected to familial religious pressures obligating them to display favouritism towards China. In this way, China may be afforded an additional relational foothold with which to leverage its strategic aspirations for the Tongan nation.

Courting of the Aristocracy and Political Elite

The international relations mood in Tonga emphasises fierce independence from outside influence and the perpetuation of the traditional monarchical rule. This nationalist independence explains the prevalent distaste expressed towards patronising nations which attempt to impose foreign values on Tongan political decision making. US-affiliated Western powers have often applied a prescriptive approach to interacting with the Tongan regime and have possibly fallen from favour with Tongan decision makers. China, on the other hand, has arguably utilised an egalitarian approach in its Tongan dealings and actively sought to bestow honour upon the ruling monarchy in state visits. Consequently, the Tongan welcome mat has been rolled out for the Chinese government.[36] [37]

Economic Intervention

Tonga’s Poor economic conditions have created a ripe and willing target for nations seeking to gain a strategic diplomatic or economic foothold there.  The Australian and New Zealand Governments have been the primary sources of past aid intervention into Tonga (mostly conditionally tied aid).[38]  However, China has now risen to the fore because of its provision of less restrictive aid/loan terms and its encouragement of Chinese private sector investment into Tonga. With the ability to provide aid and loans comes the ability to steer the path of the nation being invested into. Tonga’s increased aid receptivity towards China has created ample opportunities for China do just that.[39] Additionally, Tongan elected and monarchical political leaders have fallen prey to individually targeted attempts by China to influence national policy and political cohesion utilising the provision of personal economic gain.[40]

Utilisation of Local Chinese Diaspora Growth

The rapidly growing immigrant Chinese diaspora has been problematic for Tonga in recent years. Ethnic Chinese have formed an economic sub-class within Tongan society, monopolising the retail sector by accounting for 90 percent of retail businesses. The traditional Tongan method of conducting business has also suffered at the hands of the Chinese diaspora.[41] Traditionally, Tongan culture dictated a moral imperative for unquestioning altruism towards those in need when requested. Chinese retailers, however, dismiss this practice much to the consternation of native Tongans. The influx of Chinese immigrants has also left Tonga open to infiltration by transnational organised crime syndicates originating from China.  These syndicates have exploited Tonga’s lax immigration controls, and as some commentators have noted, may have been facilitated in part by the Chinese government as part of a potential infiltration and control strategy. Human trafficking, illicit substance transport as well as importation racketeering have been widely ascribed to this recent Chinese influx.[42] [43] Whilst there is merit to the argument that China’s pivot towards Tonga is largely explained through a paradigm of economic opportunism, it seems pertinent to consider that China may be concurrently pursuing a more menacing course of action. Through both the monopolisation of Tongan business ventures and the growing presence of Chinese organised crime, Tonga is increasingly being subjected to pressures arising out of the Chinese diaspora. Noting the strong connection between the Chinese regime and its foreign diasporas, it may be plausible to speculate that the Chinese Government is actively manipulating (at arm’s length) such occurrences for its own strategic purposes. Organised crime syndicates may provide China with a lever to destabilise Tongan society, simultaneously offering the Chinese Government an additional reason to provide assistance to Tonga. Furthermore, it may allow China to create a fertile environment in which Tongan leaders can be coaxed into lucrative illegal honeypots. This strategic approach aimed at garnering political, economic and ideational control over Tonga may be hard to emphatically prove. However, the reported cases of questionable commercial opportunism perpetrated by some Tongan political and monarchical leaders may lend weight to the argument that China is pursuing such an approach. The connection between the Chinese Government and the arm’s length employment of organised crime is also not without merit given previous cases elsewhere.[44]

Online Propaganda

Another tactic arguably employed by the Chinese government to shape Tongan public opinion towards China is through the utilisation of a state-sponsored social media online-army (‘wǔmáo dǎng’ or ’50 Cent Party’). The singular assignment of this specialist Chinese intelligence group comprises the monitoring of online social media channels and intervening into discussions about sensitive state-based issues. This involves bombarding the discussion with a deluge of pro-state discourse originating from a multitude of credible, yet fabricated, online personas.[45] There is no definitive proof that this has occurred in relation to shaping Tongan public opinion, however, the existence of such a psyops section points towards the likelihood that it has been utilised. Additionally, given the tight government control of the media in Tonga[46] and with the potential for China to assert pressure on Tongan political leaders, there may be the potential for a forced pro-Chinese media bias.

Educational Sponsorship

In the Educational arena, China has sought to attract Tongan students to study there through the generous provision of state-sponsored tertiary scholarships.[47] Whilst it could be argued that this constitutes a gesture of diplomatic goodwill, it may equally be seen to represent a strategic ruse. The aim being to craft a cultivable opportunity for China to indoctrinate the “Chinese way” into some of Tonga’s most talented minds and its potential future political, social and business torchbearers.   Potentially, an even more worrying possibility is that China may be seeking to control the landscape of academic discourse by creating an army of pro-China academics. Essentially, this pro-China cohort may work to dampen any anti-China academic discourse or seek to alienate students, expert commentators and faculty members who express views that are antagonistic toward China’s strategic interests in Tonga.

Impediments to the Cultivation of Pro-Chinese Sentiment in Tonga

One significant detraction from the argument that China is successfully wooing the hearts and minds of Tonga is found in the Tongan riots of 2006. It is accepted that these were fomented by indigenous Tongans in response to their dissatisfaction with the increase in domestic economic retail sector influence of the immigrant Chinese diaspora. This diaspora growth, despite giving the Chinese Government an indirect method of influencing Tonga, may be acting to divide everyday Tongan’s from their political and ruling elite. If China is attempting to woo Tonga towards an exclusive alliance, this outcome may be viewed as a major crack in China’s plan or evidence that it was not China’s strategy in the first place. However, since the riots, this rift has been broadly patched. The Tongan government has visibly capitulated to China, publicly apologising for the uprising and compensating the Chinese businesses damaged in the riots.  Moreover, the Tongan government quickly responded with a heavy securitised response in order to discourage any future repeat of the situation.[48]  In essence, the possible Chinese plan for a strategic Tongan pivot would appear to be back on track despite what may be considered the temporary glitches of 2006.

COG 2: The degree of the US pivot to the South Pacific

A second significant COG is the degree to which the US pivots towards or withdraws from the South Pacific economically, diplomatically and militarily. This section will examine the theoretical effects of US soft and hard-power policy approaches towards Tonga and how these may act to impact on the China-Tonga relationship.

US Soft-Power Policy Approaches Regarding Tonga

Langa’oi argues that decision making in Tonga is in the hands of a very limited number of elites and that foreign aid provides many advantages to those in that upper ruling Echelon.[49] Accordingly, money talks when it comes to procuring diplomatic friendship with Tonga. The current US policy approach towards Tonga involves the US providing comparatively little in the way of aid ($USD9mil), maintaining minimal diplomatic connectedness and some generally underwhelming US efforts towards any real South Pacific pivot.[50] However, there is some evidence of a loose US-Tonga military affiliation and co-involvement in operations in Iraq. The bulk of influence that the US maintains over Tonga is found in the connectedness of US allies (Australia, Japan and New Zealand) with Tonga. This ancillary influence arises out of the three Western allies collectively providing the most significant amount of foreign aid to Tonga ($USD386mil). China runs a close second ($USD172mil), however, the actual level of China’s monetary provision may be much greater through its utilisation of quasi non-government corporations and other indirect aid routes. China’s trade, aid and loans to Tonga have seen recent exponential growth which has ascribed China the status of being Tonga’s preferred diplomatic partner.[51]  This growth in favouritism towards China, coupled with a decline in affection for Western aid (owing to its many onerous preconditions) has arguably placed the US badly for enacting any effective soft-power policy towards Tonga.

Further evidence of shrinking US soft-power engagement with Tonga can be found in the US policy stance towards ‘global warming’. Regardless of the validity of Global warming science, the perception that Tonga may be facing an inherent threat from future sea level change has provided China with the opportunity to pursue a common partnership goal. China’s International championing of the ‘global warming’ cause has been in stark contrast to the reticence of the US and Australia towards entering into international climate change agreements.[52] However, with China being one of the largest contributors to the global greenhouse gas emissions that theoretically contribute to climate change, it raises questions as to China’s intentions regarding the pursuance of climate change mitigation. Is China’s stance representative of a true conviction regarding the mitigation of climate change? Alternately, does it represent a contrived posture in order to place it at odds with Western climate change policies, thereby making it appear more amenable to South Pacific Island nations? Given China’s history of inherent disregard for environmental pollution, its imperative of growth at any costs and desire to contest the hegemonic status of the US, it would not be without merit to assert that climate change may be an adjunctive strategic tool in China’s diplomatic alliance building arsenal.

The ongoing fiscal tightening arising from the 2008 financial crisis has compounded the sense of US reluctance for any increase in soft-power diplomacy towards Tonga.[53] Forward to 2017, the new US administration has embarked upon a decidedly US-centric policy focus. This change arguably relegates foreign aid and international altruism a distant second to military muscle flexing. The new administration has also declared the warehousing of the term “pivotal rebalance”, effectively sinking hopes of a soft-power pivot towards Tonga.[54] An additional pressure may be further catalysing the US ‘no-pivot’ policy stance in that US-based pro-China industry lobbies may be co-opting US politicians. In doing so, they may seek to perpetuate the existing US-China trade status quo involving a more neutral and laissez-faire policy approach to China.

This resistance, since the 1990’s, of the US to decisively enter into soft-power attempts at garnering influence in the South Pacific has afforded China the luxury of gaining traction in Tonga and pursuing its “peaceful rise” to diplomatic and trade dominance. However, it may also be argued that this US reluctance may be acting to abate a much more aggressive strategy by China to gain influence in Tonga. Any ramping up in US policy to attain additional regional influence beyond its strong presence in other South Pacific island nations may be interpreted by China as an attempt to contain its trade ambitions and result in it undertaking more aggressive actions in Tonga. Then again, it may be equally valid to argue that an appropriate US soft-power pivot towards the Pacific that reflects partnership over patronage may dampen the resolve of China towards Tonga. This may also work to provide a moderating and stabilising competitive presence with which to encourage regional peace and diplomatic engagement.[55] [56] Accordingly, Hegarty argues that the Chinese presence in the Pacific should not be viewed as a threat of military action, instead, Western powers should seek a balanced approach, working with the Chinese in improving the stability and prosperity of the South Pacific Islands. [57] Regardless, in light of the present US withdrawal from foreign aid commitments and the more inward-looking US economic strategy, it appears realistic to contend that the US is unlikely to come forward with any such soft-power pivot towards Tonga. Even if that were not the case, such a soft-power pivot would arguably accomplish very little. The net result may do little more than enact and fuel a “keeping up with the Joneses” scenario against a much better economically positioned competitor (China) and therefore instituting a no-win situation for the US. Lastly, as was stated earlier, this peaceful Chinese rise may foreshadow a more ominous strategy by which China seeks to establish the diplomatic and infrastructural groundwork for increasing its military capacity in the region regardless of any US soft-power actions.

US Hard-Power Approaches Regarding Tonga

Despite the argument that China may not present a direct geostrategic threat to Western interests in the Pacific,[58] the reluctance of the US to engage in soft-power competition for Tonga indicates that the US believes something different. Perhaps, given the possibility that China may hold hegemonic regional aspirations, the US may have little intention of abandoning the region to Chinese aspirations. The enduring Navy presence in the South Pacific and the conduct of freedom of navigation operations in the South and East China Seas may serve as evidence that the US continues to see strategic value in the Pacific. This behaviour may represent an expression of US preference for the pursuit of hard-power engagement options towards dealing with China in the South Pacific.

A number of lines of reasoning may explain a US preference for pursuing a stronger South Pacific military presence instead of soft-power diplomacy. Firstly, Dulles has asserted that if China were to foster a primary military alliance with Tonga, a nation on the third island chain line, they would command a strategic advantage against the US and prevent them from containing China militarily.[59] A Tongan base would be strategically close to the US bases in Guam and Hawaii, hence undermining the US military regional advantage. In this vein, whichever Tonga-allied nation commands exclusive rights within Tonga’s large maritime boundaries, they may also be able to exploit the area as a guaranteed gateway within one of the world’s major economic sea lanes.[60] Secondly, as previously mentioned, Tonga’s EEZ hosts major undersea cables running between Australia/New Zealand and the US. Undoubtedly, this would not be lost on China, realising the potential strategic advantages that may accrue through the interruption of these strategic communication conduits in a potential time of conflict. If China were to secure exclusive access to Tonga’s maritime EEZ, it would be well placed to inhibit the flow of information between the US and its major southern ally, Australia.

Given that the US currently holds a formidable strategic advantage over China in terms of military advancement and war-fighting capacity, and given the appearance of some US economic weakness in the aftermath of the global financial crisis, the most viable policy strategy may be one involving an increased hard-power presence in the region. This may work to remove any potential strategic advantage for China setting up a military presence in Tonga in the face of an overwhelming US regional presence, thereby dampening China’s resolve to move in that direction.[61]

Conclusion

China’s refocusing of economic and diplomatic attention towards Tonga poses a conundrum for the US-lead Western Alliance, requiring it to speculate as to whether China’s intentions in undertaking such a pivot are benign or malevolent. If China’s pivot does represent a threat to Western interests, the pertinent question to ask is what strategic approach may best be used to ameliorate it. This investigation has taken the position that China’s soft-power economic pivot towards Tonga occludes China’s underlying intention to establish a future military presence in Tonga. Furthermore, China’s underlying strategy poses a credible threat to the US-lead Western hegemonic order. Finally, there is a comparative weakness in the US capacity to mount an effective soft-power counter response to China. A heightened US hard-power strategy involving a greater regional military presence may, therefore, be appropriate and warranted in order to discourage China from pursuing such an escalatory COA.

This analysis found that Tonga is subject to unmitigated economic, social, political and natural vulnerabilities which leave It open to manipulation by external actors. One such actor is China, a nation that is increasingly subject to an ongoing incapacity towards satiating their own resource needs. According to liberal theory oriented experts, China is consequently pivoting towards Tonga as part of its economically rational strategy involving the establishment of a stable network of international resource suppliers and distribution channels. However, engagement with Tonga holds very little benefit to China in terms of resources or economic gain. Consequently, in line with realist-oriented opinions, China’s pivot towards Tonga may present a façade of benign economic altruism, but it may have underlying malignant intentions towards establishing a land-based military/naval presence in the South Pacific. This would essentially constitute a strategic move towards countering the US-lead Western hegemonic order in the region and allow China to circumvent any threat of containment instituted by the existing US hegemony. in light of China’s past operating patterns and doctrines, it seems that a more feasible interpretation of China’s actions and intentions in Tonga may be found in these realist-based explanations.

Further to this, two significant COG’s were found to undergird the effectiveness of China’s pivot towards Tonga. Firstly, China has implemented various “hearts and minds” operations aimed at expediting China’s diplomatic/economic relationship with Tonga through the promotion of pro-China sentiment. This strategy has been covertly operating with great success in Tonga, where it has been used to institute a pro-China attitudinal change within Tonga’s economic, social, political, religious, educational and media circles. The programs successful execution has been integral to the continued intertwinement of China into the inner workings of Tongan society. Secondly, the low level of US soft-power regional engagement with Tonga has allowed China to greatly enhance its own relational involvement with the small and economically vulnerable Pacific Island nation. Analysts have suggested that the US needs to implement a revised soft-power policy towards Tonga in order to ameliorate the potential threat of China using Tonga for strategic military purposes. However, China has attained an advanced level of intertwinement with Tonga owing to the careful cultivation of pro-China sentiment in the minds of Tonga’s people and its ruling elite. This resilience may seriously impede any revised US soft-power push into Tonga, with any such strategy only minimally influencing the trajectory and intensity of the budding China-Tonga relationship. The ineffectiveness of a US soft-power policy transformation may be further magnified when faced with China’s comparatively deep and politically unconstrained pockets.

Accordingly, an effective policy stance which recognises the strategic significance of Tonga may require a broad rethink of the current US laissez-faire strategy.  Overall, due to the argued inadequacy of any new US/Western soft-power strategies to significantly alter the trajectory of the China pivot towards Tonga, a revitalised hard-power stance seems to offer the most viable response option. Utilising an increased military/naval forward presence in the South Pacific in conjunction with the strengthening of existing bilateral security alliances/partnerships may best enable the US-lead Western order to discourage China from seeking to cultivate Tonga as a forward military outpost in the South Pacific. It will achieve this by increasing the potential risks and costs for China to continue on a hegemonic trajectory. It is also worth noting that budgetary limitations may be hampering the US department of defence’s ability to implement a truly effective hard-power rebalance towards Tonga.[62]  Future research may seek to highlight China’s pivot to other small South Pacific nations also being groomed for China’s future strategic advantage over the US. Such research would also need to explore the possible reallocation of military resources from other theatres, investigating those region’s relative strategic importance when compared to the often-neglected South Pacific.

 

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Footnotes

[1] Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, US Military Joint Publication 2-01.3- Joint Intelligence Preparation of the Operational Environment, Washington D.C., Joint Chiefs of Staff, 16 June 2009, http://www.fas.org/irp/doddir/dod/jp2-01-3.pdf, (accessed 19 February 2017).

[2] C. Yu, ‘The Pacific Islands in Chinese Geo-Strategic Thinking’ in China and the Pacific: The View from Oceania, National University of Samoa, 27 February 2015, Apia, National University of Samoa, p. 6, http://www.victoria.ac.nz/chinaresearchcentre/programmes-and-projects/china-symposiums/china-and-the-pacific-the-view-from-oceania/10-Yu-Changsen-The-Pacific-Islands-in-Chinese-Geo-strategic-Thinking.pdf, (accessed 17 March 2017).

[3] ‘What Does China Want with Tonga? Featuring Gordon Chang & Cleo Paskal’, [onlinevideo], 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K5vTeUJbN3M, (accessed 10 March 2017).

[4] T. Wesley Smith, ‘China’s Rise in Oceania: Issues and Perspectives’, Pacific Affairs, vol. 86, no. 2, 2013, p. 364.

[5] ASPI, ‘Australia and the South Pacific: Rising to the Challenge’, ASPI Special Report, no. 12, 2008, p. 16.

[6] J. McCarthy, ‘China extends its influence in the South Pacific, PacificBeat’, ABC News, 10 Sep 2016, http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-09-10/china-extends-its-influence-in-the-south-pacific/7812922, (accessed 16 March 2017).

[7] Wesley-Smith, op. cit., p. 357.

[8] ibid., p. 358.

[9] J. Hayward Jones, Big Enough for All of Us: Geostrategic Competition in the Pacific Islands, Sydney, Lowy Institute, 2013, p .14.

[10] P. Cronin, M. Rapp Hooper and H. Krejsa, Dynamic Balance: An Alliance Requirements Roadmap for the Asia Pacific Region, Washington, DC, Center for a New American Security, 2016, p. 3.

[11] M. Hegarty, ‘China’s Growing Influence in the South West Pacific: Australian policies that could respond to China’s intentions and objectives’, Indo-Pacific Strategic Papers, 2015, p. 3.

[12] Wesley-Smith, op. cit., pp. 365-366.

[13] ibid., p. 352.

[14] Cronin, op. cit., p. 24.

[15] J. Zhang, ‘China’s Role in the Pacific Islands Region’, in R. Azizian and C. Cramer (eds.), Regionalism, Security & Cooperation in Oceania, Honolulu, Asia Pacific Center for Security Studies, 2015, p. 43.

[16] Hayward Jones, Big Enough for All of Us: Geostrategic Competition in the Pacific Islands, op. cit., p. 3.

[17] P. Brown, ‘Australian influence in the South Pacific’, Indo Pacific Strategic Papers, 2012, p. 20.

[18] Hayward Jones, Big Enough for All of Us: Geostrategic Competition in the Pacific Islands, op. cit., p. 13.

[19] P. Connolly, ‘Engaging China’s New Foreign Policy in the South Pacific’, Australian Journal of International Affairs, vol. 70, no. 5, 2016, p. 500.

[20] Y. Huang, ‘Context, Not History, Matters for Deng’s Famous Phrase’, Global Times, 15 June 2015, http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/661734.shtml, (accessed 11 March 2017).

[21] M. Lanteigne, ‘Water Dragon? China, Power Shifts and Soft Balancing in the South Pacific’, Political Science, vol. 64, no. 1, 2012, p. 3.

[22] B. Schaare,‘A Pacific Arc of Instability?’, cogitASIA, [webblog], 9 September 2015, http://cogitasia.com/a-pacific-arc-of-instability, (accessed 14 March 2017).

[23] H. White, ‘The China Choice: A Bold Vision for U.S. China Relations’, The Diplomat, 17 August 2012, http://thediplomat.com/2012/08/the-china-choice-a-bold-vision-for-u-s-china-relations, (accessed 1 March 2017).

[24] Department of Defence, Australian Defence White Paper, Canberra, Commonwealth of Australia, 2016, p. 69.

[25] P. Langa’oi, ‘China’s Diplomatic Relations with the Kingdom of Tonga’, in T. Wesley-Smith and E. Porter (eds.), e-book, China in Oceania: Reshaping the Pacific?, Oxford, Berghahn Books, Kobo Edition, 2010.

[26] Brown, loc. cit.

[27] A. Powles and J. Sousa-Santos, Principled Engagement: Rebuilding Defence Ties with Fiji, Sydney, Lowy Institute, https://www.lowyinstitute.org/publications/principled-engagement-rebuilding-defence-ties-fiji, (accessed 5 March 2017).

[28] ‘Admiral Harry Harris addresses the Lowy Institute’, [online video], 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f3veCWzH8-8, (accessed 11 March 2017).

[29] Wesley-Smith, op. cit., p.353.

[30] A. Rawlins, Australia, ‘ANZUS and Rising China: Can Melos Have Cake and Eat It Too?’, Shedden Papers, Canberra, Australian Defence College Centre for Defence and Strategic Studies, 2013, p. 41.

[31] ‘What Does China Want with Tonga? – Featuring Gordon Chang & Cleo Paskal’, loc. cit.

[32] Connolly, loc. cit.

[33] White, loc. cit.

[34] P. Fletcher Stack, ‘China a prize in LDS’s eyes’, The Salt Lake Tribune, 9 September 2010, http://archive.sltrib.com/story.php?ref=/sltrib/home/50189317-76/church-china-lds-chinese.html.csp, (accessed 22 March 2017).

[35] M. Martinich, LDS Growth Case Studies: Government Restrictions and LDS Growth,

http://www.cumorah.com/index.php?target=view_other_articles&story_id=460&cat_id=30, (accessed 22 March 2017).

[36] Hegarty, op. cit., p. 18.

[37] Wesley-Smith, op. cit., p. 369.

[38] Brown, op. cit., pp. 3-6.

[39] Brown, op. cit., pp. 18-20.

[40] M. Dornan and P. Brant, ‘Chinese Assistance in the Pacific: Agency, Effectiveness and the Role of Pacific Island Governments’, Asia & the Pacific Policy Studies, vol. 1, no. 2, 2014, p. 360.

[41] ASPI, op. cit., p. 80.

[42] Ibid., p. 12.

[43] C. Paskal, ‘Are There Chinese Hitmen in the Kingdom of Tonga?’, The Diplomat, 17 April 2017, http://thediplomat.com/2017/04/are-there-chinese-hitmen-in-the-kingdom-of-tonga, (accessed 27 April 2017).

[44] Parliamentary Joint Committee on the National Crime Authority, Asian Organised Crime in Australia: A Discussion Paper, Canberra, Commonwealth of Australia, 1995, http://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Joint/Former_Committees/acc/completed_inquiries/pre1996/ncaaoc/report/c04, (accessed 30 April 2017).

[45]. G. King, J. Pan, and M. Roberts, How the Chinese Government Fabricates Social Media Posts for Strategic Distraction, not Engaged Argument, Working Paper, Harvard University, 2016, pp. 33-34.

[46]. P. Cass, ‘Tongan media fear persecution; claim Prime Minister only wants controlled media’, Kaniva Tonga, 26 April 2017, http://kanivatonga.nz/2017/04/tongan-media-fear-persecution-claim-prime-minister-wants-controlled-media, (accessed 10 May 2017).

[47] Zhang, op. cit., p. 49.

[48] Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainability, ‘Tonga: Allegations of Torture and Mistreatment’, Nautilus Institute, 2009, http://nautilus.org/publications/books/australian-forces-abroad/tonga/allegations-of-torture-and-mistreatment, (accessed 5 May 2017).

[49] Langa’oi, loc. cit.

[50] Powles and Sousa-Santos, loc. cit.

[51] McCarthy, loc. cit.

[52] J. Hayward-Jones, ‘Australia and Security in the Pacific Islands Region’, in R. Azizian and C. Cramer (eds.), Regionalism, Security & Cooperation in Oceania, Honolulu, Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, 2015. p. 76.

[53] Center for Strategic and International Studies, Asia-Pacific Rebalance 2025: Capabilities, Presence and Partnerships-an Independent Review of U.S. Defense Strategy in the Asia-Pacific, Washington D.C., Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2016, p. 4.

[54] C. Bajpaee, ‘The Birth of a Multipolar Asia?’, The Interpreter, 22 May 2017, https://www.lowyinstitute.org/the-interpreter/birth-multipolar-asia, (accessed 27 May 2017).

[55] Powles and Sousa-Santos, loc. cit.

[56] J. Evans, ‘Australia’s Arc of Instability? A Strategic Assessment of East Timor and The Independent States of Melanesia’, Shedden Papers, Canberra, Australian Defence College Centre for Defence and Strategic Studies, 2012, p. 31.

[57] Hegarty, op. cit., pp. 17-20.

[58] J. Hayward-Jones, ‘China in the Pacific Islands: Competition Not Dominance’, The Diplomat, 22 May 2013, http://thediplomat.com/2013/05/china-in-the-pacific-islands-competition-not-dominance, (accessed 10 April 2017).

[59] ‘AP 360: The Strategic Significance of Oceania with Cleo Paskal’, [online video], 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xvh5BGQwtBc, (accessed 6 April 2017).

[60] Yu, loc. cit.

[61].Hayward Jones, Big Enough for All of Us: Geostrategic Competition in the Pacific Islands, loc. cit.

[62] Center for Strategic and International Studies, loc. cit.

Mark Anthony Taylor has a Master of policing, intelligence and counter terrorism at Macquarie University in Australia. He is a tutor within the Macquarie University department of security studies and criminology, and is concurrently undertaking a Master of research with a thesis exploring the strategies employed by the Chinese Communist Party in their attempts to exert influence within Australia. JPR Status: Working Paper.