China, Tonga hold aid ceremony day before US Pacific meet

By Kirsty Needham

MELBOURNE (Reuters) -Tonga and China held a signing ceremony on Friday for construction equipment that will be used to build infrastructure in the tsunami-hit Pacific island, a day before the top U.S. diplomat arrives in the region to discuss development aid.

Tonga is in lockdown as it experiences it first COVID-19 outbreak, which has grown to 66 cases. Two Chinese navy ships carrying tsunami aid will reach Tonga next week.

A handover ceremony for more than 110 pieces of machinery including bulldozers, trucks and excavators dispatched from China before last month's volcanic eruption and tsunami was held on Friday. The equipment is a gift from by Beijing.

"These machines arrived at the right time and will be critical in the national reconstruction in the wake of the disasters," said Chinese ambassador Cao Xiaolin in a live-streamed ceremony outside Tonga's infrastructure ministry.

"Strong political will and perseverance is the two strong forces that keep us in contact and makes us much stronger," said Tonga's cabinet secretary Edgar Cocker at the ceremony, thanking Beijing.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken travels to Fiji on Saturday to reassure Pacific island leaders in a video meeting that Washington and its allies are committed to the region, and priorities including climate change and fisheries, as China steps up its influence.

Beijing's growing police and military links in the Pacific islands has concerned Canberra and Washington, analysts say.

A meeting of ministers from the Quad group of Australia, U.S., Japan and India on Friday is expected to discuss how to provide alternatives to Beijing's Belt and Road infrastructure program in the Indo-Pacific.

In Tonga, China says it has invested in fisheries and will also send police vehicles.

Prime Minister Siaosi Sovaleni said on Friday Tonga was facing formidable challenges, after a volcanic eruption, tsunami and COVID-19 outbreak.

"We are fortunate to have among our good friends countries like China to support us," he said.

Naval ships and defence planes from Australia, New Zealand, Japan, France, Britain and the U.S. coordinated the delivery of water, food and other humanitarian supplies after the disaster, which destroyed homes and contaminated drinking water.

The ceremony comes a day after the Tongan Prime Minister's office issued a statement of "profound regret" to China over the recall of Chinese food aid that had been distributed to residents.

Local radio broadcast messages this week telling residents not to eat canned pork.

A later statement said there had been a "misunderstanding related to the recall of food items that were part of the Government of the People's Republic of China's emergency relief supplies".

China was one of the first development partners to respond with assistance for Tonga after the tsunami, it noted.

(Reporting by Kirsty Needham; Editing by Kim Coghill)

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