The LDS Church has offered to help Tonga with its sovereign debt to China.


LONDON: So, this is a new one. Rumours are that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (also known as the Mormons or the LDS Church) has offered to help Tonga with its sovereign debt to China. There is a lot to unpack.

First, the context. The Kingdom of Tonga is an independent country in the South Pacific, with a population of around 110,000. In the early 2000s, Tonga was slowly transitioning from a traditional, chiefly monarchical political structure to something more Western-style. Some thought the process was taking too long. In 2006, “pro-democracy” demonstrators rioted and burned down much of the capital.

Western partners Australia and New Zealand backed the “democracy” movement and wanted regime change. They didn’t offer the sort of aid needed to rebuild. China stepped in with a loan. Eventually, that loan reached its current level of around US$120 million.

Since then, Chinese influence in Tonga has become pervasive. It extends far beyond the loan, but the loan casts a long shadow over relations, with Tongan politicians regularly, publicly hoping the debt will be forgiven. So far, China shows no signs of giving up that leverage.

In the meantime, the LDS Church has also paid a lot of attention to Tonga. The vast majority of Tongans are devout Christians. Only essential businesses are allowed to operate on Sunday. There aren’t even any flights permitted in or out of the country on the Holy Day.

The largest denomination is the Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga. Tonga was never colonized. Tongans have also been fiercely independent religiously—with the first modern-era Tongan King establishing Tonga’s own Wesleyan Church rather than hosting a branch of Wesleyanism administered from abroad.

Recently, one of the fastest growing religions in Tonga is the LDS Church. The LDS Church was founded in the United States a little less than 200 years ago, and is headquartered in Salt Lake City, Utah. One of its most famous members is former US Presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

The Church has gained converts in Tonga through devoted attention to the country and its people. It has built temples, schools, and assisted in disaster recovery. It has also adapted to local customs. For example, while Church members aren’t permitted alcohol, tobacco or caffeine, they are allowed the Polynesian relaxant drink kava.

The LDS Church facilitates university education in the United States for members, specifically through the Church’s Brigham Young University, based in Utah. Tonga has close to 99% literacy, and access to further education is extremely important to many families. The result is that one of the highest concentrations of Tongans in the US is in Utah.

Within Tonga, census estimates are 18-20% of Tongans consider themselves practicing members of the LDS Church. That includes one of the King’s son and several members of government, including Cabinet level. Statistically, Tonga is the most “Mormon” country on earth.

The Church is keen to build on its successes in Tonga. Recently, the president of the Church, Russell Nelson, visited the Pacific islands, including Tonga. While there, he met with the King, the Prime Minister and others. And this was when rumours started to circulate that there had been an offer by the Church to assist with Tonga’s sovereign debt to China. The Church can certainly afford it.

The rumours haven’t been confirmed, nor have they been denied. Either way, the simple idea of the arrival of entirely new geopolitical players raises a lot of interesting issues.

The fact is, a lot of the debt to China that’s seen as impinging on strategic independence involves relatively small amounts for some non-state actors. The Catholic Church could emancipate Tonga with the sale of a single one of its Leonardo da Vinci paintings—with enough left over to help out Samoa and Fiji. Mukesh Ambani could buy Tonga’s debt for less than he paid for the Mumbai Indians. Jeff Bezos earned an average of $231,000 per minute in 2018. He could cover Tonga’s debt in under nine hours—and undoubtedly get a range of Tongan tax (and other) benefits for his troubles.

China can’t like these potential new options. Its debt diplomacy has been confined to relatively “manageable” state-based actors, and effective. To have, as rumoured in this case, a US-based Church take that leverage away would create more than headaches in Beijing.

Meanwhile, Washington would likely be pleased (incidentally, the LDS Church contributes a statistically disproportionate number of members to US government service). If some Tongans are going to be affiliated with any religion that isn’t Tonga-based, choosing one based in Utah helps build ties, and more.

As for Tonga, just the knowledge that it has options gives it more room in negotiations with Beijing. China would be better off to forgive the debt, look magnanimous and protect its relations with Tongan leaders than let a Church displace it.

That is logical but, if the offer was made, Tonga’s decision might come down not to geostrategy but to faith. Some non-LDS Church members in Tonga are talking about preferring being indebted to atheist China than to a “competing” religion. For them, China’s battle for earthly influence is nothing compared to the battle for the soul.

Whatever the outcome, it might be time to think about what the sudden appearance of new players might do to an already congested and contested field.

Cleo Paskal is a Sunday Guardian Special Correspondent.