Chinese Aircraft Strains Tonga’s Relations With New Zealand

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MA60 plane has been certified, flying in Tonga since August

By Pesi Fonua

NUKUALOFA, Tonga (Matangi Tonga, Nov. 11, 2013) – The Tonga government's refusal to bring an international aviation authority to certify the MA60 aircraft gifted by China has strained Tonga’s relationship with New Zealand during the past three months.

In October, the New Zealand Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Murray McCully, reiterated that he would continue to withhold a tourism development aid package for Tonga worth around USD$8 million until the MA60 aircraft was certified by a respected international authority.

An offer by New Zealand to fund an aviation safety expert to come to Tonga and assess the MA60 aircraft was also rejected by the Tongan government.

Tonga's Minister for Infrastructure, who is also responsible for Transport, Hon. Samiu Vaipulu, told Matangi Tonga on November 8 that he could not allow an third-party assessment because, "It will be bad for our diplomatic relations with China."

He said that considering the generosity of the Chinese to give Tonga a USD$15 million aircraft along with USD$13 million worth of spare parts that could keep the aircraft running for three years, "we will not do it, it would be like stabbing the Chinese in the back, we just can't do it, bringing in a third party to check what the Chinese have given us."

Samiu said that the Chinese had also offered to give Tonga two new Y12 aircraft, to enable Tonga's domestic air service to extend to the Niuas, and 'Eua. The two aircraft were scheduled to arrive in 2015, but they were negotiating with the hope of having the first Y12 aircraft arrive in Tonga in May next year.

Samiu said that they had made contact with China's Foreign Affairs with regards to McCully's proposition and they had invited people from the New Zealand Foreign Affairs to visit China and talk over their concerns about the safety of the MA60.

"Interesting though, that a representative of the New Zealand Foreign Affairs told the Chinese in Beijing that they were concerned not with the safety of the aircraft, but with the operator of the aircraft [Real Tonga]," he said.


Samiu said that the Chinese "found it very amusing" when he told them that the operator was the same company that inspects Air New Zealand aircraft and the aircraft of other airlines that land in Tonga.

He believed that under the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) certification requirements, that if a country wanted to buy an aircraft but it had not got the expertise, it could make an agreement to use the airworthiness process of the aircraft manufacturing country.

Tonga is a member of ICAO.

"We signed an agreement to use the airworthiness of China in June 2012, and we certified the MA60 according to the airworthiness of China," said Samiu, "but interestingly, New Zealand also signed an airworthiness agreement with China in December."

Tonga certified the MA60 aircraft and it started flying on the domestic service between Tongatapu and Vava'u on 10 August 2013.

The Tonga government is not looking for a solution for improving the standoff with its neighbour New Zealand over the aircraft.

Samiu suggested that Murray McCully should "withdraw his travel advisory for New Zealanders about the MA60 aircraft, and lift his suspension of the USD$8 million tourism development grant, over three years that he had endorsed."

Meanwhile, tourism operators in Vava'u report that many New Zealand holiday-makers cancelled their holiday bookings in Vava‘u this year.

Samiu, however, said that visitor arrivals by air in Tonga were up by 17%, and the tourist operators in Vava'u who are in favor of the MA60 said that they have had a good year. "It is only those who are against the MA60 who are saying the new aircraft has a negative impact in their business."

Group travel

Meanwhile, Tonga and China have signed a Memorandum of Understanding to Facilitate Group Travelling, making Tonga a destination for Chinese tourists.

The standoff between Tonga and New Zealand over the Chinese-made MA60 aircraft began to take shape in January when Chathams Pacific, Tonga's sole domestic inter-islands airline announced that it would discontinue its operation in Tonga on 3 March 2013.

Chathams Pacific is a New Zealand based airline.

At the time, Craig Emeny, the CEO of Chathams Pacific Airlines in a letter to the Prime Minister, Lord Tu'ivakano stated: "I have now lost business confidence in Tonga due to the government's attitude towards my airline, and I won't continue providing the domestic air services."

Craig expressed his disappointment over a decision by the Tongan government to sponsor air service competition by giving a donated aircraft from China to an airline that had yet to be established to compete with his airline.

When the Chatham Pacific terminated its operation on 3 March, the Real Tongan Airline stepped in, but to keep the domestic air service in operation it chartered some of the Chatham's aircrafts, such as its Convair 580 and DC3 aircrafts.

The MA60 aircraft that was still under construction in China was scheduled to arrive in Tonga before 2 November, but because of the disruption to the domestic air service, the arrival date for the new 52-seater aircraft was moved forward, and it arrived in Tonga in early July.

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