South Pacific ‘Chinese ports’ cause worry

South Pacific ‘Chinese ports’ cause worry

NUKU'ALOFA - Japanese, US and Australian defense authorities are increasingly wary over China's moves to develop port facilities in island countries in the Pacific Ocean amid concern that those facilities could become Chinese Navy footholds in the future.

Japan, the United States and Australia aim to take concerted action to curb China's growing influence in the Pacific at the Pacific Islands Forum, which opened on Tuesday, and on other occasions.

Military vessels can dock

In late July, a 1,900-ton patrol ship from New Zealand was anchored at Vuna Wharf in Nuku'alofa, the capital of Tonga. The wharf for large passenger ferries was developed with full support from China. The pier is about 120 meters long and the sea is about 20 meters deep, making the wharf big enough to accommodate warships.

The wharf was damaged by a cyclone that ravaged Tonga in 1982 and left unrepaired. However, China extended to Tonga a low-interest loan totaling 32 million pa'anga, or about ¥1.67 billion (S$21.3 million)  from 2009 to 2012, which covered the entire cost of reconstructing the wharf. The new wharf was completed late last year.

Employees of a Chinese company that received a contract to build the facilities were taking photos at the wharf at the time of my visit.

In Tonga, Chinese financial support is also used to repair roads, downtown areas and even the king's palace. Beijing offered a loan totaling about ¥6.2 billion to develop infrastructure, including reconstruction of Vuna Wharf, from 2009 to 2012. From 2011 to 2013, China provided another loan worth about ¥4.7 billion to repair roads, bringing total loans to the country from China to about ¥10.9 billion.

According to the International Monetary Fund, China's loans to Tonga account for about 30 percent of the country's gross domestic product.

An Australian military source said China is trying to shift Tonga over to its side with such support and could make this wharf a foothold for its military vessels.

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