China’s ambassador to Tonga has denied engaging in “debt trap” diplomacy in the Pacific, telling his first press conference in two years that if the heavily indebted country cannot repay its loans , “we can talk and negotiate in a friendly and diplomatic way”. .
Cao Xiaolin told Tuesday’s rally in Nuku’alofa – a rare opportunity for reporters to interview Chinese officials – that China’s preferential loans were “without political strings attached” and that Beijing would never force countries to repay the loans.
Tonga, which was hit by a volcanic eruption and tsunami in January, has an external debt of $195 million, or 35.9% of its GDP, two-thirds of which is owed to the China Import Bank. export (Exim), according to its budget.
There are worries about debt repayments to China set to rise in 2024, on a loan used to rebuild its central business district after the 2006 riots.
In May, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi signed six agreements with Tonga during a whirlwind tour of the Pacific, according to Prime Minister Siaosi Sovaleni, whose office confirmed that discussions had taken place on the Tonga’s loans to China.
Xiaolin said on Tuesday: “For a long time, some media misinterpreted China’s preferential loans to Tonga. They fabricated China’s so-called “debt trap” with malicious intentions to defame and smear China and disrupt China’s cooperation with Tonga. »
He said the Tonga government had applied for the loans from the Exim Bank and had already started repaying them, “indicating a healthy state of Tonga’s fiscal and economic system and sending a positive signal to the community. international”. When asked how much Tonga owes China, Xiaolin said he could not provide figures.
Asked about the Sri Lankan port that China took over when Colombo could not repay its loan, he said: “I don’t think we can compare these two preferential loans because each country has its own terms. The national condition and status of Tonga cannot be compared to that of Sri Lanka.
The ambassador again sought to allay concerns about China’s efforts to secure a comprehensive security deal for the region, saying China had come to the Pacific region to build roads, bridges and improve the level life of the population, “not to station troops or build military bases”. ”.
“China is ready to work with Pacific island countries to expand consensus on regional cooperation, not to sign a regional security agreement,” he added. “When China conducts exchanges and cooperates with Pacific island countries, it has never interfered in the internal affairs of Pacific island countries, never attached political conditions, and never sought interests. personal geopolitics.”
Xiaolin said the controversial deal with the Solomon Islands was agreed to help the Pacific nation “maintain social order”, echoing claims by Collin Beck, a leading figure in the Solomon Islands government. Xiaolin said, “China does not impose anything on anyone. This is not how the Chinese people behave.
In a shot at Western powers, the Chinese ambassador said Beijing does not view the region as its “backyard” and would never seek to expand its sphere of influence.
“Not like some other countries in the world that have a history of colonialism and nuclear weapons testing in the Pacific region, China has no such history and will never do such things.”