PM Hu‘akavameiliku plays down US, Australia’s “no role” warning for China policing in Pacific Islands

Prime Minister Hu‘akavameiliku says there are no grounds for concern after China offered to assist with hosting of the upcoming Pacific Islands Forum (PIF)  meeting in Nuku’alofa in August.

A team from the People’s Republic of China’s Police & Security visited Tonga and paid a courtesy call to the Hon. Prime Minister, Hu’akavameiliku on April 3, 2024. Photo/PM Office, Tonga

His revelation last week comes after Australia’s Pacific Minister Pat Conroy said there should be “no role” for China in policing the Pacific Islands, and Australia will train more local security forces to fill gaps, after Reuters reported Chinese police are working in Kiribati.

Tonga’s Prime Minister’s office published a photo of the Prime Minister with a team from the People’s Republic of China’s Police and Security visiting Tonga last week.

“If it’s training and if the (Tonga) police deem it to be necessary, of course we will take up the offer,”  PM Hu’akavameiliku told reporters.

Tonga’s Police Commissioner, Shane McLennan, told the ABC that the delegation of six officers came from Shandong Province and were “following up” the meeting China hosted with Pacific police ministers and chiefs in December last year.

The Australian Broadcasting Corp (ABC) reported the Commissioner as saying that while the MPS delegation had a “broader” agenda on police cooperation, the main discussions were on how Chinese police could help Tonga host the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) leaders’ meeting in August.

“At the moment it is totally focused on what assistance they can provide to assist us as Tonga police to deliver the PIF leaders meeting,” McLennan told the ABC.

PM Hu’akavameiliku said: “We’ve discussed the numbers of police motorcycles and supporting vehicles (to be handed over),” the ABC reported.

He also said that Australia and other nations had “no reason to be concerned”.

“If it’s training and if (Tonga) police deem it to be necessary, of course we will take up the offer,” he said.

He said China was also willing to donate police vehicles and motorbikes to Tonga – much like it has in Solomon Islands – to help ensure the event ran smoothly.

But senior opposition lawmaker Simon Birmingham said Australia, the wealthiest member of the Pacific Islands Forum, must offer all resources needed to prevent any Chinese security involvement at the summit.

“It is deeply concerning for any suggestion that security or other resources for the Pacific Islands Forum to be held in Tonga would need to be provided by any nation outside of the Pacific Islands Forum membership,” Birmingham told the ABC.

Australia, New Zealand and Tonga have a Tri-party Partnership on Policing, a trilateral arrangement focusing on developing leadership and building an efficient and effective Policing service that has the trust and confidence of the community.

Tonga and New Zealand’s current Policing Programme (TNZPP) 2022 – 2025 was aimed at increasing skills, knowledge and capability to deliver policing services.

The United States last month cautioned Pacific Islands nations against assistance from Chinese security forces, after Kiribati’s acting police commissioner Eeri Aritiera told Reuters that uniformed Chinese officers were working with its police in community policing and a crime database program.

“There are no Australian police in Kiribati, although Canberra has pledged to fund a new police radio network, police barracks and two maritime security advisors are supporting Kiribati police to maintain a donated patrol boat”, Reuter reported.

Pacific Island leaders had agreed in 2022 at a meeting of the Pacific Island Forum regional bloc to fill any security gaps from within the “Pacific family”, he said.

Chinese police have been deployed in the Solomon Islands since 2022.

Conroy said Australia would like to see police from Papua New Guinea, Fiji and other Pacific nations play a greater role in assisting island neighbours with security, as they had done for December’s Pacific Games in Solomon Islands.

China’s ambassador to Australia said last month that China had a strategy to form policing ties with Pacific Island countries to help maintain social order and this should not cause Australia anxiety.

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