This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
The United States opened an embassy in Tonga on Wednesday as it continued efforts to bolster its diplomatic presence in Pacific island countries where it is vying for influence with China.
The opening of the U.S. embassy in the Tongan capital Nuku’alofa follows the reopening of the U.S. embassy in the Solomon Islands in February after a three decade absence. The United States also has said it wants embassies in Vanuatu and Kiribati in addition to its existing missions in countries such as Fiji and Papua New Guinea.
“We are proactively engaging the people of the Pacific,” said Tony Grubel, deputy chief of mission for the U.S. embassy in Fiji, at a flag raising ceremony in Tonga’s capital. “Addressing your priorities, with you, on your terms.”
China’s influence in the Pacific has burgeoned over several decades through a combination of increased trade, infrastructure investment and aid as it seeks to isolate Taiwan diplomatically and gain allies in international institutions. The Solomon Islands and Kiribati switched their diplomatic recognition to China from Taiwan in 2019.
Beijing signed a security pact with the Solomon Islands last year, alarming the U.S. and allies such as Australia who fear it could pave the way for a Chinese military presence in the region.
Tonga’s Acting Prime Minister Samiu Vaipulu said the opening of a U.S. embassy in the Polynesian kingdom of some 100,000 people was a welcome development. It comes ahead of President Joe Biden’s planned stopover in Papua New Guinea on May 22 and meeting with Pacific Island leaders.
“Today is a historic day for us all and one, which we have long awaited,” he said. The embassy opening “represents an important milestone in Tonga’s history and one which His Majesty’s government warmly welcomes.”
Present at the ceremony were the high commissioners of the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Australia and representatives of Japan’s embassy. China’s embassy didn’t send a representative.
Tonga’s government debt to China — as a percentage of the island country’s total government debt — is the highest among Pacific island countries followed by Samoa and Vanuatu.
In 2018, Tonga’s then prime minister ‘Akilisi Pohiva publicly urged other Pacific island countries to collectively lobby Beijing for debt forgiveness.
Like the Solomon Islands embassy opening in Honiara, the Tongan embassy event appeared to be a soft launch.
A Department of State statement said it would pave the way for the U.S. to send more diplomats and resources to Tonga “including the potential appointment of a resident Ambassador to Tonga.”
In the Solomon Islands, the United States renamed the small office of its consular services agency as an embassy and hasn’t named an ambassador yet.
Grubel said development agency USAID is working on programs relevant to Tonga.
“USAID continues to address the existential threat posed by climate change as a top priority, along with facing the challenges related to water security, infectious diseases, economic development, and safeguarding of maritime resources,” he said.