US$20m China aircraft gift has unintended repercussions on Tonga

Gift to Pacific island nation has unintended consequences as tourism slumps and New Zealand, a key supporter, is seriously upset

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 25 June, 2014, 9:01pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 25 June, 2014, 9:01pm


Beijing's US$20 million donation of an aircraft to Tonga's domestic airline has triggered an inadvertent slump in the country's tourist industry, with flights to the outer islands down by a third since last year.

That is because the gift last year caused a rival New Zealand airline, that brought many of its nation's visitors to Tonga, to pack up and leave, blaming unfair competition. Then the New Zealand government warned its citizens not to use the Tongan carrier, saying the Chinese plane lacked safety certification.

"The economy of Tonga has suffered quite dramatically as a result," said Stuart Perry, the general manager of Tourism Tonga.

It's a tiny skirmish in a battle for global influence with unintended results for this nation of just over 100,000 people.

At Tonga's main airport, built by United States army contractors during the second world war, maintenance crews work on the plane, a 60-seat turboprop Xian MA-60.

When Tonga took delivery of the plane, which came with spare parts and training, it prompted New Zealand company Air Chathams to leave after five years rather than face what it considered to be subsidised competition. That left Real Tonga, which operates the MA-60, as the sole domestic operator.

"It was very sad for us. We put our heart and soul into it," said Air Chathams owner and chief executive Craig Emeny.

The New Zealand government then posted a travel advisory on its website, warning that MA-60 planes had been involved in several crashes in other countries and did not have recognised certification. New Zealand also withheld about US$5 million in tourism aid.

"We can't just sit back and say, 'That's OK'," New Zealand's Prime Minister John Key said of the plane's certification.

Tonga has accused New Zealand of acting like a bully. It pointed out that Wellington had not posted similar warnings for other countries operating MA-60s, a claim New Zealand says it will investigate. Tonga said the plane was properly certified by China and it planned to soon accept a second plane, a Harbin Y-12.

"We need all the planes we can get," said Vili Cocker, Tonga's civil aviation director.

Beijing's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said China had provided the plane at the request of the Tongan government "as a matter of bilateral economic and technical cooperation".

Over recent years, China has financed and built hospitals, schools, offices and roads across Fiji, Samoa, Vanuatu and other Pacific islands. It has offered Putonghua lessons and scholarships to thousands of students, and trained hundreds of government officials in Beijing.

Is it about altruism, or influence? In 2011, then-US secretary of state Hillary Clinton made her view clear. "Let's put aside the humanitarian, do-good side of what we believe in. Let's just talk straight realpolitik. We are in competition with China," she told the US Senate foreign relations committee. "They have brought all of the leaders of these small Pacific nations to Beijing, wined them and dined them."

As for the plane, Tonga has asked the World Bank to take an independent look at the issue. And Perry says Tonga has also ordered some British-built BAE Jetstream-32 planes that may pick up routes and reduce tensions.