Tuesday, November 28, 2006

China as Collateral Damage in the Tongan Crisis

(as cross-posted on dailykos and revised with a reworked introduction and conclusion)

Photo: Martin Sykes, New Zealand Herald

Tonga is in turmoil. Pro-democracy forces dissatisfied with the slow pace of political reform and resentful of dominance of the economy by ethnic Chinese linked to the unpopular monarchy rioted in the streets of the capital, Nuku'alofa, on November 16 and burned Chinese businesses as well as government buildings.

Tonga is only one of several nations in crisis in the South Pacific as populist, democratic forces battle against entrenched elites, economically dominant non-indigenous ethnic groups, and Australian pretensions to regional hegemony consciously modeled on the Bush administration's policies in the Middle East.

Australia's ability to control events in the South Pacific has already been tested in the Solomon Islands, Tonga, and Fiji. The next crisis--which may force Canberra to decide if it is truly willing and ready to assume the burdens of a neo-colonial power in a volatile and much larger and more dangerous arena--looms in Papua New Guinea.

Yes, there's trouble in paradise.

In some ways, the crisis in Tonga resembles the upheaval in the Solomon Islands in April of this year.

But there are differences.

As I wrote back in April, the Solomon Islands crisis was fueled by Taiwan money and Australian muscle—the unwise decision by Taipei and Canberra to back (and embolden) a political faction that was apparently profoundly corrupt and profoundly unpopular. Popular outrage against some cynical political shenanigans promptly found an outlet in attack on overseas Chinese interests.

In Tonga, Chinese apparently appear on the stage as collateral damage: deeply involved with an unpopular elite, committed to the status quo, but trying unsuccessfully to stay out of the middle in a burgeoning political crisis.

Australia's John Howard, on the other hand, seems intent on re-enacting his role as George Bush's "sheriff" in the South Pacific and throwing Austrlia's weight around as the dominant military power to drive events in the region, even as the Bush Doctrine staggers from failure to collapse in the Middle East.

Tonga, to be unkind but not inaccurate, is run by an idiot in a pith helmet, hereditary monarch George Tupou V, and his rather unattractive family.

The Independent provided some local color as the soon-to-be King and his sister awaited the demise of their father:

The King's most likely successor is Crown Prince Tupouto'a, 58, a Sandhurst graduate with an Oxford degree, who once described Tongans as "squatters who would urinate in elevators". He has also advocated encouraging police to "thrash the habit" out of drug addicts.

The Prince controls Tonga's beer company, its mobile phone company, its electricity company, and its cable television company. He is also the main beneficiary of sales of Tonga's .to Internet domain suffix. He used to be Tonga's foreign minister, but gave it up for a business career.

Princess Pilolevu controls the country's only duty-free franchise and satellite company. She also owns an import business, a travel company, and Tonga's biggest insurance company.

When the Prince ascended the throne in September of this year, Jane Phare of the New Zealand Herald added a few more cutting details:

Though village women spent hundreds of hours making ta'ovala so men, women and children could dress correctly to pay their respects to the late King for a month after his death, Tupou IV scathingly dismissed "basket weaving or whatever it is that they do" in a television interview in which he talked about his skills as a businessman. That drove an even bigger wedge between the people and their new monarch.


[T]he new King, a man ... has attracted more labels - military fetishist, cybervisonary, crazy genius, Machiavelli-like schemer, jet-setting bachelor and playboy - in his 58 years than the royal family would like.


The leader of the pro-democracy movement, Akilisi Pohiva, ...wants to see the new King's powers reduced to a ceremonial role similar to the British system. He says the people want a King who is "a real Tongan, not just biological".

The King's attitude and lifestyle is foreign to Tongans, he says.

"He lives in a fantasy world. He is out of touch."

Freelance journalist Mateni Tapueluelu, who has also been in jail and in court over articles he has written, says the new King is a "modern boy" who wants to modernise Tonga without letting go of his traditional power. "He comes across as arrogant. He portrays himself as a British aristocrat and yet his policy is 'look east towards China'."

Ah, China.

Tonga’s stunning departure from the Republic of China’s orbit in 1999 and the establishment of diplomatic relations with Beijing was midwifed by the current king’s sister, Princess Pilolevu Tuita, whose business and diplomatic priorities sprang from a unique scheme to claim and market equatorial satellite slots—Tongasat.

According to journalist Michael Field, a senior official of Intelsat, Mats Nilson, in a fit of benevolence, tutored Tonga on how to claim a number of satellite slots that, instead of being filled with the fruits of Tonga’s space and telecommunications industries, could be sold to the highest bidder. The Princess, given the brief to pursue this venture, ended up with a 60% share of Tongasat, which for various reasons, incorporated in Hong Kong instead of Tonga.

Then, in order to ensure a ready market for the slots and to open up China to Christian prostelyzation (the Tongan royal family wears a hereditary spiritual crown as Wesleyan ministers), the princess pulled the plug on relations with the ROC.

Field reports:

The princess explained her position in the bimonthly Matangi Tonga magazine.

She said her father had given her a mandate to negotiate the switch, saying “it is one of the most courageous decisions that his majesty has made.

It was “the first step for Tonga to become a full member of the United Nations”, an odd statement to make given recognition of China was never a pre-requisite to UN membership.

The princess has now set up in Hong Kong with a Chinese business partner, Fred Wang, trying to sell TongaSat’s satellite slots to China.

“I believe that God invented us to do this work otherwise we could have become just another foreigner knocking on doors in Beijing for years without having a chance to meet the leaders of China,” she told the magazine.

“We are honoured that we became part of his majesty’s vision for Tonga’s future.”

The princess said China would become a destination for Tongan missionaries.

“I look upon this new relationship with China as a means of spreading the Lord’s words to China.

“When China opens its doors to Christian evangelists, Tonga should be right there by the door.”

Then came something of a recognition that money was involved.

“Business -- fine, normalising relationships -- true, but this is hat I have been looking at, because his majesty’s vision is for Tongans to be evangelists, for Tonga to be an evangelist country to spread the word, I truly see this as an opportunity for all good Christians in Tonga.”

After Beijing sealed the deal by proffering a larger-than-life bronze statue of Taufa'ahau Tupou IV, who was enshrined in the Guinness Book of World Records as the planet’s most obese monarch, aristocratic Tongan society slid easily into the PRC camp, as Field reported.

Quiet now is the Speaker, Noble Fusitu’a, who was a high ranking member of the Taiwan funded World Anti-Communist League. They convinced him that the democracy movement in Tonga was made up of "crypto-communists”.

He was strongly anti-Communist.

"The exact definition of communist nobody has ever tried to explain. A communist to you is different to a communist to me. Anybody who tries to move the people against the established order, causing chaos, anarchy, that's the first degree of communism.”

On that note—chaos and anarchy—we can fast-forward to November 2006, when the new king and his prime minister fumble away an opportunity to transition from an inept, spendthrift autocracy to a responsive parliamentary monarchy, and an enraged populace takes to the streets and starts burning stuff—including Chinese stuff associated with the despised aristo/business elite—to the ground. Ethnic Chinese shelter in the PRC embassy and get evacuated by chartered plane to China.

Things don’t look too good for China in the short term, at least until it can negotiate a place in whatever populist order establishes itself as a result of the collapse of the monarchy’s privileges.

The king’s brother and heir, Crown Prince Tupouto'a Lavaka, had, in a previous incarnation as prime minister in 2001, ordered the expulsion of Chinese immigrants as part of a power play against his satellite-loving sister:

The princess, who has extensive business interests in China, is understood to support Chinese immigration to stimulate the economy—a policy promoted by her father. An influx of Chinese took place from the mid-1990s on work permits issued with the royal seal. Many found jobs as construction labourers.

Now, in a crude appeal to Tongan nationalism, prince-cum-Prime Minister ‘Ulakalala [the current crown prince—ed.] has changed tack and ordered the expulsions. While the immediate target appears to be his sister, the decision reflects wider divisions in the country’s tiny ruling elite arising from recent attempts to open up the island’s fragile economy to overseas investment, particularly from China.

Maybe not good times ahead, for the Chinese and the Tongans, if the crown prince decides to rev up his political career at the expense of his older brother and sister with some anti-Chinese pseudo-populism.

Fortunately for China, there is always somebody around to do something stupid enough to distract popular rage from the Chinese—the Australians and, to a lesser extent, the New Zealanders.

The power vacuum left by the retreat of Taiwan has been filled by Australia, which has decided to contest the Pacific islands with China on the most dubious basis imaginable.

In a replay of the Solomon Islands story, Canberra sees the unrest as a chance to assert its regional sheriff role in Tonga and has made the potentially ruinous decision to send troops to Tonga to prop up the ever more unpopular king.

Writing on the New Zealand website Stuff, Michael Field (again) writes:

A joint contingent of New Zealand and Australian troops flew into Tonga yesterday at Sevele's request. It includes 62 New Zealand Defence Force personnel plus police and other government staff.

Halapua said Tonga was proud of never having been colonised, and that Sevele, who is royally appointed, had made a serious mistake by inviting foreign forces in.

"That says a lot about him and his government. He knows very well that people don't have confidence in him any more. In other different governments, they would step down," he said.

"If Australia and New Zealand police and army are there to prop up the government, they are propping the government up against everybody else. It's not just the pro-democracy (protesters)."

Halapua said there was a belief among some some people in Nuku'alofa that the New Zealand and Australian forces were coming "to make people afraid and to support the government".

Instead, said Halapua, the government should step down so the foreign forces could work with a new leadership.

As reported on the Planet Tonga Newswire, Halapua—a highly respected figure in Tongan politics—has called on the Tongan prime minister to resign for inviting the foreign troops in.

According to Renmin Ribao, New Zealand, at least, has no appetite for Tongan nation-building and expects all Australian and New Zealand forces to be off the island within the week.

Australia might have other ideas.

Indymedia, a left-wing Australian website, in an article prepared before the Tonga crisis, provided its take on Canberra’s policy choices in the region and in the process updates the situation in the Solomon Islands, where a populist regime is butting heads with Australia over accountability of the unpopular RAMSI (Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands) force:

The Howard government calculates that any concession in the Solomon Islands would undermine its authority throughout the region. In PNG and Fiji the crisis has already emboldened elements of the ruling elite who are looking to China and other powers for aid, investment and political assistance to offset Australia’s domination. Canberra’s increasingly aggressive actions are in turn driven by the fear of ceding geo-strategic influence to rival regional powers in what Howard has designated “our patch”.

The New Zealand Labour government has distanced itself somewhat from Canberra’s approach. “The consent environment for the [RAMSI] regional mission is not what it was,” New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark admitted on November 13 in a speech delivered in Germany. “I believe [RAMSI] can be secured if the mission has a broader Pacific flavour about it, and if clear benchmarks towards an exit strategy can be set.”

Clark senses in the mounting regional hostility to Canberra an opportunity to advance New Zealand’s independent interests. While the New Zealand government has been an active accomplice of Canberra’s neo-colonial interventions in the region, it has long sought to gain regional advantage by portraying itself as a sensitive ally of the Pacific states.“We cannot act effectively without the agreement of our partners in the region,” Clark explained. “A hallmark of New Zealand’s diplomacy in the south Pacific is our commitment to seeking a strong consent environment for what we do.”

The Howard government has not backed down, however. “I think inevitably there are going to be moments of tension with some of the political elites,” Downer declared on November 15. “When we embarked on this change of policy in 2003 we did it very much with our eyes open. We knew that it would be resisted by some people, particularly by some of what you might call the political elite, in some of the countries of the region.... We are a very big country by the standards of the south Pacific and I suppose you put up with a modicum of criticism.”

The Howard government’s stance has led to calls within Australian ruling circles for an open discussion of the implications of the re-emergence of regional colonial rule. “If the job [in the Solomons] is to be done properly, Australia is unmistakably launching a new form of colonialism, the nature of which is not yet fully understood or developed but which is none the less real,” Michael O’Connor writes in the latest edition of Quadrant. “If we are to understand this reality—and support the commitment it deserves—it may be first necessary to abandon the shibboleth that colonialism is irredeemably bad.”

In the bad old days of apartheid, when an international jetliner landed in Johannesberg the pilot would jokingly announce, “We’ve arrived in South Africa. Please set your watches back 15 years.”

For Australia, the equivalent joke would be, set your calendars back 100 years to the heyday of the British Raj or, maybe just three years back—to a time when regional transformation through military force was still considered to be a moral and viable foreign policy.

I don't think even George W. Bush believes in the Bush Doctrine anymore and I can’t think that anyone in their right minds thinks that his all-too-loyal ally John Howard can buck the trend toward populism and democracy in the South Pacific with hard language and determined nut-twisting. Quagmire and repudiation probably await Australia.

It would be rather amazing if the last act of the Iraq tragedy unfolded in some beautiful, angry islands in the South Pacific.


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