Wellington, New Zealand (AP) — Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited the tiny kingdom of Tonga on Wednesday, as the United States continues to increase its diplomatic efforts in the Pacific while China’s influence in the region grows.
Home to some 104,000 people, Tonga last year witnessed a massive volcanic eruption that caused a devastating tsunami. This natural disaster claimed the lives of four people in Tonga and released millions of tons of water vapor into the atmosphere.
During his visit, Blinken dedicated the new U.S. Embassy in Tonga, which had been inaugurated just two months ago. He also expressed his appreciation for the return of Peace Corps volunteers following the end of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Highlighting concerns about China’s actions in the region, Blinken mentioned its “predatory” economic activities, its assertion of “unlawful” maritime claims, and its increasing focus on militarization. This marks U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s third trip to the Asia-Pacific region in the past two months as part of the country’s efforts to enhance engagement.
Tongan Prime Minister Siaosi Sovaleni reassured Blinken that he was not worried about the large amount of money his country had borrowed from China. In fact, Tonga had already begun repaying the debt this year.
During his visit, Blinken had discussions with Prime Minister Sovaleni and other officials to strengthen bilateral relations and address regional and global issues.
This trip is indicative of the United States’ commitment to bolstering its presence in the Indo-Pacific region amidst China’s growing influence. As China engages more deeply in the region, the U.S. views certain behaviors as increasingly problematic, said Secretary Blinken.
China’s assertiveness in the Pacific has prompted intensified diplomatic efforts by the United States, with a particular focus on fostering partnerships in Tonga, New Zealand, and Australia.
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Elevating U.S. Presence in the Pacific Islands
Secretary Blinken highlights U.S. commitments to the Pacific Islands, following President Biden’s historic summit with Pacific Islands leaders. The United States aims to enhance diplomatic and development engagement in the region, as stated by Miller.
Tackling the Pacific Climate Crisis
During his visit, Secretary Blinken also emphasizes U.S. efforts to address the Pacific climate crisis. This includes expanding early warning systems to mitigate the effects of environmental challenges.
Continuing Travels in the Asia-Pacific Region
Following his trip to the Pacific Islands, Secretary Blinken is set to travel to New Zealand and Australia. In New Zealand, he will meet with officials and attend the much-anticipated women’s World Cup soccer match between the U.S. and the Netherlands. In Brisbane, Australia, he will engage in meetings with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and their Australian counterparts.
This marks Secretary Blinken’s third visit to the Asia-Pacific region in the past two months, having previously visited China and Indonesia. Additionally, second gentleman Doug Emhoff recently concluded a visit to New Zealand and Samoa, representing U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris. French President Emmanuel Macron has also embarked on a trip to the South Pacific this week.
Strengthening Diplomatic Efforts
The State Department recently informed Congress of plans for a significant increase in diplomatic personnel and spending for facilities at new U.S. embassies in the Pacific islands. This decision was made due to China’s established permanent diplomatic facilities in eight out of the 12 Pacific island nations recognized by the U.S., prompting the need for the U.S. to catch up.