Forget China: No Shark Trade in Tonga. Yeah Right
In the South Pacific winter of 2013, Michael Brassington reported from Tonga that “China is now the South Pacific’s most valued VIP.” The Australian journalist was interviewing Pesi Fonua, longstanding Tongan publisher who commented: “They are definitely calling the shots. Whatever they want they can negotiate or take it.” Referring to China, he ranked this regional power as a twenty first century precursor for South Seas debt, diplomacy, and indebtedness.
By Fonua’s description China was the debt stress killer. In 2014, Tonga would start repaying Chinese soft loans worth 40% of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) spent on buildings, wharfs, bridges, roads. Ordinary people in this small island developing state were worried the government might default on loan payments. Then what would happen? Would China own Tonga?
What have Pakeha New Zealanders’ perceptions of Pacific Islanders got to do with any of this? Reconfiguring South Pacific relations with China as a contending power sparked off anxiety for the United States, Australian, and New Zealand governments. The question was how did political unease shape strategies to control the region? For Tonga’s national affliction of debt distress, did New Zealand’s regional engagement consider how an age old attitude towards Pacific Islanders weighed down this country’s excess baggage carried over from the 19th and 20th centuries, nudging them closer to China?