Even Tonga’s starting to understand Rome’s decline…
another signal detected from noise (thanks to Michael Morano)
Hours after the new U.S. Embassy in Tonga opened, I received a stream of irked texts from a Tongan colleague: “If you know people at the new Embassy here, please let them know that they wrote the [bad word redacted] Nukuʻalofa [Capital of Tonga] thing wrong – uses the wrong punctuation. The punctuation in the middle of Nukuʻalofa (used in their seal all over the place) is NOT an apostrophe and should tail upwards even the Chinese know that. It looks stupid.”
Welcome to the latest installment in our side-by-side comparison of why China is winning the ground game in the Pacific Islands: Soft Power Edition.
To be clear, it is very good news the U.S. has opened an Embassy in Tonga – and this is not about the team that has worked hard to make it happen. They got a lot done in a short period of time and need more support.
This is about hearts and minds in Tonga.
There is a natural (but not necessarily infinitely renewable) warmth in Tonga towards the U.S. The U.S. and Tonga signed a Treaty of Amity, Commerce and Navigation in Nuku’alofa in 1886. U.S. troops were stationed there in World War Two. There are (relatively) large and dynamic Tongan communities in the U.S., including in California, Texas and Utah.
Tonga has long wanted a closer diplomatic relationship with the U.S. – direct bilateral and not mediated by Australia or New Zealand. In part to prove that, the Tongan military has served in Iraq and Afghanistan. This was without a U.S. Embassy in Tonga. One of the understandings was the U.S. would at least set up consular camps so that Tongans didn’t have to pay to fly to Fiji to apply for visas to the U.S. The late, great diplomat Amb. C. Steven McGann made it happen, for a while, and then it stopped.
The new Embassy doesn’t offer consular services. Nor does it have an Ambassador. The U.S. has said perhaps that will come.
Also, the Embassy seems to have been ‘officially’ opened at a time that was convenient for Sec. Blinken to attend the opening, which sounds like a good idea, but it was at a time the King of Tonga couldn’t attend.
What might all this look like to Tongans? For the average Tongan, not much has changed. They still have to go to Fiji for visas. The signaling about Sec. Blinken being there but not the King implies the timing was for the convenience of the U.S. not Tonga (for many, the King is the symbol of the nation).
But, the fact is, not many Tongans are thinking about the opening at all. It was spectacularly overshadowed by the arrival a few days later by the PLA medical ship Peace Ark. Check out the video. It was sent to me by the same colleague.
The Peace Ark was greeted by a Tongan military band, traditional singing and dancing, and flag waving ethnic Chinese in Tonga. Interestingly, the welcome banner is in Mandarin and Tongan – no English.
They don’t even bother messaging to the U.S. anymore.