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Tonga's prime minister says he's open to Chinese help with security support at an upcoming summit

MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Tonga’s prime minister said on Thursday he is open to Beijing’s offer of security support when the South Pacific kingdom hosts a major regional leaders’ summit, raising concerns in the United States as it strives to counter China’s growing influence.

Prime Minister Siaosi Sovaleni said there was nothing to fear from China’s offer to help Tonga host leaders of the 18-member Pacific Islands Forum in August, despite the United States urging regional nations not to strike security pacts with Beijing.

“There’s no reason to be concerned. China is offering to assist with the hosting of the foreign leaders' meeting,” Sovaleni told reporters in the Tongan capital Nukuʻalofa.

“If it’s training and if the (Tonga) police deem it to be necessary, of course we will take up the offer,” Sovaleni added, addressing an Australian government fear that authoritarian Chinese policing methods could take hold in the Pacific.

The United States and its most important South Pacific ally, Australia, have been working to strengthen ties in the region since Beijing struck a security pact in 2022 that raised fears of the Solomon Islands hosting a Chinese naval base.

China has since been rebuffed in its attempt to encompass 10 Pacific Island nations in a single security treaty. Beijing is now seeking one-on-one deals with individual island nations.

A Tongan government website published a photograph of six officials from China’s Ministry of Public Security meeting with Sovaleni on Wednesday during their visit to the island nation of just over 100,000.

Sovaleni said discussions had centered on China providing police motorcycles and other vehicles to support security for the regional leaders’ summit that rotates annually between member nations.

The offices of Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong and Pacific Minister Pat Conroy did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Thursday on Tonga’s security negotiations.

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 Australian Broadcasting Corp.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Tonga last year as part of the United States’ efforts to increase its diplomatic influence in the region. The United States had opened a Tongan embassy months earlier.