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The U.S. dedicates a new embassy in Tonga in a bid for more influence in the Pacific

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, left, shakes hands with Tonga's Prime Minister Tonga's Prime Minister Siaosi Sovaleni in Nuku'alofa, Tonga Wednesday, July 26, 2023.
Tupou Vaipulu
/
AP
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, left, shakes hands with Tonga's Prime Minister Tonga's Prime Minister Siaosi Sovaleni in Nuku'alofa, Tonga Wednesday, July 26, 2023.

MANILA, Philippines — Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited the island kingdom of Tonga on Wednesday, making him the latest U.S. diplomat to make a swing through the Pacific as Washington pushes to increase its influence there.

"President Biden is fully committed to working with Tonga, and with all Pacific Islands, to usher in an era of even closer collaboration to deliver on the issues that matter most to our people — rooted in mutual respect and mutual trust," Blinken said during a news conference after meeting with Tongan officials, including Tongan Prime Minister Hu'akavameiliku, also known as Siaosi Sovaleni.

This is Blinken's third time to tour the Pacific islands since he became secretary of state, but only his first time to Tonga, which is located in the South Pacific more than 1,000 miles from the northern tip of New Zealand.

While there, he marked the May 9 opening of a new U.S. Embassy in the capital Nuku'alofa and the return of Peace Corps volunteers after they left the island because of COVID-19 pandemic. The opening of the new embassy ispart of Washington's major increase in personnel and spending for new diplomatic posts across the Pacific.

Blinken's trip comes during a time of increased tension between the U.S. and China for influence across the Pacific. Last year, the Solomon Islands — which switched its alliance from Taiwan to China in 2019 — signed a security pact with Beijing that rattled Western powers for fear that Beijing would try to build a military base on the island country. Solomon Islands officials say that fear is unfounded.

Still, since the signing of that pact, both U.S. and Chinese diplomats have made multiple trips to the Pacific. And over the past six months, the U.S. has taken various diplmatic steps, including renewing its compacts of free association with Micronesia and Palau, opening new embassies in the Solomon Islands and Tonga and signing a defense agreement with Papua New Guinea.

Blinken also said Wednesday that the U.S. did not object to nations in the region engaging with other countries, including China, but that there are concerns over Beijing's "increasingly problematic behavior."

"Including at the same time the assertion of unlawful maritime claims – something that I've raised extensively when I was in China – the militarization of disputed features – for example, in the South China Seas, some predatory economic activities, and also investments that are done in a way that can actually undermine good governance and promote corruption," he said.

Tonga, a nation of just over 106,000 people that is heavily dependent on remittances and external aid, is deeply indebted to China. The small nation's external debt is around $186 million, with almost two-thirds of that owed to China, reports Reuters.

The United States needs to build on its high-level visits and diplomatic efforts, writes Parker Novak,a nonresident fellow with the Atlantic Council's Indo-Pacific Security Initiative and Global China Hub.

"It needs to continue showing up and demonstrate that it values partnerships with Pacific nations not just because of their relevance to geopolitical competition with China, but also in their own right," Novak said. "Issues from fisheries to critical minerals to information and communications technology, hold significance in the region. There is no issue more important, though, than climate change, which Pacific Islanders see as an existential threat to their security and way of life."

Blinken's upcoming schedule in the region include stops in New Zealand and Australia. In Australia, he will meet up with U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, who is on his own trip to the region, and the two will discuss defense strategies with their Australian counter-parts.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ashley Westerman is a producer who occasionally directs the show. Since joining the staff in June 2015, she has produced a variety of stories including a coal mine closing near her hometown, the 2016 Republican National Convention, and the Rohingya refugee crisis in southern Bangladesh. She is also an occasional reporter for Morning Edition, and NPR.org, where she has contributed reports on both domestic and international news.