On 18th April, India lost a friend in the South Pacific when the King of Tonga, George Tupou V, 63, died in a Hong Kong hospital. Tupou V’s death plunged the tiny South Pacific island kingdom of 100,000 into mourning, and raised questions about the future direction of Tongan foreign policy at a time when China is gaining increasing sway in the Pacific.
There has been a long and deep relationship between the world’s largest democracy, India, and one of the world’s newest and smallest democracies, the Kingdom of Tonga. Tupou V, in power for just over five years, made a point of re-emphasizing the deep and traditional linkages between India and Tonga when, right after his coronation, he undertook a 19-day visit to India, one of his majesty’s longest state-visits. In so doing, he was following a family, and national, tradition.
His late father, King Tupou IV, visited India twice, in 1971 and 1976, and Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi visited the island kingdom in 1981. The warm relationship shared between the two countries is expressed through many anecdotes. According to former Indian Ambassador to Fiji and Tonga, T. P. Sreenivasan, when King Tupou IV, a large man, was bestowed a medal by Indira Gandhi, she “had to stretch herself to the extent possible on her high heels to reach his chest.” Sreenivasan called Tupou IV the “Heaviest King of the Smallest Kingdom,” and then admiringly stated, “The smaller the country, the bigger the leader.”
Tupou IV showed a keen interest in learning from India’s Green Revolution, its non-aligned position during the challenging times of the Cold War, and India’s military traditions. Tonga’s nobility and members of the royal family (including the current King’s brother) regularly receive military and administrative training in India, and Tonga was amongst the first to recognize an independent Bangladesh after 1972.
When Tupou V came to the throne, Tonga was an absolute monarchy. While long committed to democratizing the nation, perhaps influenced by what he saw in India, critics attacked Tupou V for what they considered to be the slow pace of reform. Soon after he came to power, in 2006, reformist rallies turned violent, resulting in over 80% of the capital, Nuku’alofa, being looted and burnt, and eight people dead.
This was a defining moment for the new king. Rather than retaliate, he directed the armed forces to “Protect the people and harm no one,” irrespective of political creed. Buildings can be rebuilt, he said to his commanders, but fathers, mothers, and children are irreplaceable, and protection against loss of life and injury were to be the ultimate goal. Normal life was restored with minimal violence.
In spite of the pressure from reformists and some Western countries, Tupou V wanted the democratic transition to be stable, and thought a rushed change could be problematic. In an interview with Australia’s ABC he said: “We don’t want a third world democracy. It’s quite laughable, (being) unstable. In some cases it would be perfectly dangerous.” He pointed out to the Australian interviewer: “Your country is about to send two thousand troops into the Solomon Islands! That’s what happens when you impose democracy overnight for the most undeniable reasons, without bothering to build an economic structure which would support democracy and give politicians an incentive to behave ethically.”
The transition to democracy finally happened, peacefully, with elections in 2010, which were widely lauded for being free and fair.
For traditional reasons, the king still works closely with government on foreign policy. In recent years, Tonga, like many countries in the Pacific, has been pulled closer to China. After the riots of 2006, the only country to come through with a large enough loan to rebuild the capital was China, and within the last decade, Chinese immigrants have taken over about 90% of the retail sector.
There is growing hostility in the country over the increasing Chinese influence. During the riots of 2006, around 30 Chinese shops were looted or burned, and 300 Chinese nationals evacuated back to China. Chinese nationals are regularly in the Criminal court in Tonga, including a recent case of human trafficking and prostitution. Regardless, those at the top continued the growing engagement with China, in part due to a failure of traditional partners, like New Zealand, to help it during difficult economic times.
The new king, Tupou VI, the English-educated 52-year-old, is inheriting an extremely complicated foreign policy dynamic. Tonga is supportive of the U.S. (to the point of sending troops to Afghanistan), indebted to China, and enmeshed with Australia and New Zealand which are undergoing strategic shifts.
The question is: where will India fit into this increasingly important region, and can it build on traditional ties with Tonga?
During the 1990s, Tupou V, then foreign minister, was responsible for the kingdom’s “Look West” policy, which ramped up Tonga’s engagement with Asia. Simultaneously, India developed and executed its own “Look East” policy, which was tailored for engagement with the burgeoning economies of the Asian Tigers. Oddly, these two traditional friends both considered themselves part of a growing Asia, and yet were so focused on the Asian ‘core’ that they largely missed out on each other.
Now, the importance of the Pacific is growing in the minds of Indian policy makers. The importance of India is also clear to all in the region, including Tonga, and it may be time for old friends to look at each other in new ways, especially now that Tonga has followed India’s lead in embracing democracy. Engagement would be mutually beneficial as there are myriad commonalities between the two; most importantly, Tonga may prove a useful bridge for India as it pursues a broader ‘Indo-Pacific’ strategy.
Tupou V, friend of India, will be deeply mourned. But the passing of one King gives way to another. All eyes are on Tupou VI and the new government for signs of change in Tonga’s foreign policy. This is a critical moment. The Pacific is viewed by the great powers as a strategic play and the countries, small and big, in the region, are being courted as never before in their history. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has emphasized the U.S.’ ‘Asian Pivot’ and put the spotlight on the region. Renewed U.S. interest means more Chinese engagement. Even the Arab League is looking to improve relations with countries like Tonga. India has been slow to actively engage, but the traditional relationships are there to build on, and the compatibilities are enormous.
Recently, as part of the Tonga Energy Road Map (TERM), two Tongan grandmothers attended India’s Barefoot College to learn how to install solar panels in their villages. They loved their experience, saying how at home they felt in India, which like Tonga, values family, learning, community, democracy and hard work. Since returning home they have literally enlightened their communities with what India has to offer. With little effort, that light can shine even stronger in the years to come.
Tevita Motulalo is a geopolitics post-graduate research scholar
at Manipal University and an intern at Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. He was Editor of the Tonga Chronicle.