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Rebuilding Tonga: What the Kingdom Needs is Support, Not Benevolence

“Tongans know their needs better than foreign visitors. Aid needs to be reframed as solidarity, not as benevolence.”



Japan Self-Defense Force ship JS Osumi loads relief supplies for the volcano-devastated Pacific Island country of Tonga (photo courtesy of Self-Defense Force twitter)

The day after an article of mine on January 19, 2022, suggested that Japan should work with New Zealand, Australia, France, and the United States to assist Tonga, Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi issued a decree for Japanese Self-Defense Force (SDF) assistance at the request of the Kingdom of Tonga. 

Two SDF aircraft flew to Australia on the same day, and four aid convoys were brought to Tonga from Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) Base Amberley of Australia.

On January 24 the SDF transport ship Osumi departed Japan and, after a two-week voyage, entered the Kingdom of Tonga on February 9 for the first time in SDF history.

There was a happy surprise. HMS Spey and HMS Tamar joined in the support. They are deployed for a five-year period that will see them act as “the eyes and ears” of Britain from the west coast of Africa to the west coast of the United States. 

The Australian military established Headquarters Joint Operations Command (HQJOC) as a coordinating base for the international cooperation of the armed forces of eight countries: Japan, the United States, Australia, New Zealand, France, the United Kingdom, the Kingdom of Tonga, and Fiji.


China’s Disturbing Aid

Meanwhile, which is strengthening its influence in the region, including the Kingdom of Tonga, provided support using two fishing boats from Fiji. However, these boats were loaded with Chinese-origin canned pork banned for the past two years in Tonga and possibly contaminated with swine flu. 

Their distribution to the public triggered an urgent recall. The Tongan government’s own inspection regime was stretched thin by the disaster.

Communications with the Outside World

The repair of the submarine cables is far from complete. In the meantime, people are still communicating via limited satellite communications. 

I had a chance to talk with Tevita Motulalo, a senior journalist and security policy expert in Tonga. He is also co-founder of the Royal Oceania Institute, an independent, non-partisan think tank founded in the Kingdom of Tonga in March 2016. 

The communication was choppy and not fully audible. I asked him about the Japanese SDF’s support. 

Hunga Ha'apai eruption (courtesy of Tonga Geological Services Facebook page)

Tonga’s Infrastructure

The fact that the Japan SDF has shown up, that there is a presence, is important in itself. And Tongans welcome the fact that the Japanese flag is flying. 

The impact of disasters, such as the sustainability of food and energy, is very serious and complex. Tonga’s infrastructure is not prepared for such huge disasters. 


The functioning of the whole national system which is spread over many islands — technology, each institution, experience of the national emergency system, and the role of the Royal Military — is a challenge. Japan has much experience to support these remote and small islands with technologies that Tonga expects to learn. 

Welcoming Response 

On the diplomatic front, there are many complex sensitivities. There is also the issue of personnel training at the Port of Control.

I asked what the reaction was to the message from the Emperor of Japan. The Tongan people have high respect for the Japanese imperial family. The Tongan dynasty has a history of almost 1,000 years and has values and traditions similar to those of the Japanese imperial family. 

Many rugby players have been warmly welcomed in Japan, and relations between the two countries are good. The Japanese embassy and the Japan International Cooperation Agency in Tonga also have a very good relationship with the kingdom. 

Apart from other corporate assistance, the Japanese government has helped Tonga with several important pieces of infrastructure, including the capital’s main ferry terminal, an inter-island ferry, upgrades to the main hospital, state-of-the-art solar power systems, and emergency early warning systems.

The Japanese SDF is welcomed, and there are high expectations for Japan’s sharing of knowledge and experience in disasters for enhancing the future resilience of the Kingdom of Tonga.


Disaster’s Devastating Impact

I also got a reply from a Tongan friend who lives in New Zealand: 

“Japan was one of the first three nations to send support to Tonga immediately. Tonga can use all the help they can get, so Japan’s presence is more than welcomed. Especially now with COVID in the country, the rebuild will take even longer, and the Tongan healthcare systems will be stretched out. 

“Tonga’s people are not only rebuilding the physical infrastructure of buildings and homes that were lost, but many have lost their livelihoods such as fishermen and those who work in the plantations. 

“Many families that weren’t directly impacted by the waves on the coastline but relied on the sea to survive are also struggling. They have to now find alternative ways to make a living. But options are very limited. Our people are resilient, but they also acknowledge and know love and support when offered.”

The Heavy Burden of China

China is not a member of the international cooperation of the armed forces of eight countries. Its role is less benign. Beijing has a huge embassy in Tonga and has made loans that have created a huge burden of debt for the Tongan government ー two-thirds of Tonga’s total debt ー amounting to about $108 million USD, which is a quarter of Tonga’s GDP.

Chen Hong, a professor and director of the Australian Studies Centre, East China Normal University, was interviewed by Global Times and unfortunately criticized that “Australia and other Western countries are clearly short in prudency.” 


Meanwhile, Professor David Webster of Bishop's University, author of A Samaritan State Revisited: Historical Perspectives on Canada’s Foreign Aid (2019, University of Calgary Press), said: “Tongans know their needs better than foreign visitors. Aid needs to be reframed as solidarity, not as benevolence.”

Aid providers need to learn from the solidarity of the Tongan community and ensure any collaboration reinforces that solidarity rather than weakens it.


Author: Rieko Hayakawa, PhD


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