US Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned of China’s “problematic behaviour” during a visit to the Pacific island nation of Tonga on Wednesday, citing Beijing’s militarisation of the South China Sea and what he called economic coercion.
China’s growing presence in the region, which saw it sign a security pact with the Solomon Islands last year, has fuelled concern in the US and Australia about Beijing’s ambitions, and prompted increased Western aid and engagement.
Blinken said at a press conference that the US had no objection to China’s engagement with the region but there were concerns that its investments needed to be transparent and undertaken with sustainable finance.
“I think one of the things that we’ve seen is that as China’s engagement in the (Indo-Pacific) region has grown there has been some, from our perspective, increasingly problematic behaviour,” he said.
Blinken earlier held talks with Tongan Prime Minister Siaosi Sovaleni on the strategic importance of the Pacific region, ahead of his visits to the South Pacific’s two major powers, Australia and New Zealand.
Blinken said the United States was committed to both Tonga and the broader Pacific Islands. His trip is the latest by a senior US official to the region, and President Joe Biden hosted a first ever summit in Washington with Pacific island leaders last September. A second summit is scheduled later this year.
In recent years, China has funded infrastructure and increased its diplomatic presence in the region. China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, undertook a multi-stop tour in the Pacific last year. There has been a significant boost in engagement and funding from Western countries to counter this.
US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is visiting Papua New Guinea this week before heading to Australia where the largest Australia-US military exercise is due to begin. French President Emmanuel Macron is also in the region visiting French territories, Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu.
One of the West’s biggest concerns is debt levels in the region. Tonga is heavily indebted to Beijing and there have been questions about how the nation of a little more than 100 000 people will repay that debt.
Sovaleni said at the press conference that Tonga had this year started to pay down its debt and had no concerns about Tonga’s relationship with China, which was focused on development such as infrastructure.
Blinken will officially open a new US Embassy in the capital Nuku’alofa later on Wednesday before flying on to Wellington, New Zealand.
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