The reason why the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) granted Tonga satellite slots in the 1990s was for Tongasat to operate them commercially.
The argument for the orbital slots as “national assets”, “public property”, or “property of the people” are not only misleading, they aim for short term political benefits. Rather than offering positive policies for building the economy, the political destination seems to be to tear down anything that has been successful, especially one of Tonga’s few ‘big league’, internationally recognised successes.
From the start, TEAM Tongasat was a prodigy — astute, disciplined, skilled, competitive, bold, and ambitious. It was a working model for Tonga’s economic modernisation, for other Tongan companies wanting to go out and prosper from the global economy and globalisation, and step out of the confines of the Tongan economy.
Without any government assistance in financial and technical investments, Tongasat has injected more than US50 million into the Tongan economy.
Remaining competitive, the small Tongan company slashed satellite communications in half, benefitting hundreds of millions viewers all over the Asia-Pacific. True to the mission of ITU, the slots are for the benefits of humanity, a global common. This inevitably made it enemies.
Tongasat has been bombarded, and survived, wave after wave of litigation from the world’s biggest satellite operators INTELSAT, NASA, etc. Even Indonesia joined in the siege. Politicians have tried suing the company at home since the start, with Tongasat acquitted each time.
Even the previous monarch George Tupou V took a chance at the satellite business, when Crown Prince, for his own company Diligence. He is known to have issued the Privy Council directive for government to break the exclusivity pact of Tongasat and government. He resorted to operating the internet domain registry <.to> by his company Tonga Network Information Centre (TONIC), and also entertained allowing ‘Eua as a satellite launch pad.
Not only has Tongasat been under pressure from giant global satellite consortiums, company leaders have faced serious defamation at home. With massive corruption accused against Tongasat, the company has only been useful politically as rallying point for a ‘common’ public enemy to distract from politicians’ own problems. Every other candidate is whipped to rally behind and support this manufactured dissent.
The Tongan government has now even moved to cut Tongasat out of the operable slots it has managed to maintain.
Tongasat’s monopoly was ended in 2009, and the Tongan government announced that any company could apply for slots from the ITU, and it would be supported. Not one application has been made. After that, relations with government were redrafted, and Tongasat then leased only two slots for 38 years without government revenue. In 2011, government started the process of revoking that license, and cutting Tongasat out of those slots, now to be operated directly between client Apstar and the Tongan government. The new agreement, is for Tonga to keep earning from the slots.
Tongasat is therefore selling its operations to Apstar Satellite Holdings, listed in the Hong Kong Stocks Exchange. Tongasat is divesting to Apstar for the 134˚ E and 138˚ E slots, where Apstar V and Apstar VI satellites are positioned, for all C, C+, and Ku frequency bands.
With satellite slots as global commons, if a country and its commercial partner do not operate the slots allocated to them, the slots are returned to the ITU. Because of pressure over the years from big foreign conglomerates, Tonga has gone from 12 slots to 2 in current known operations.
It is no surprise that the only willing customer for Tongasat is the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
The current fracas in the Parliament, and ensuing legal claims, is due to payments made by one of Tongasat’s clients China Electronic Services Engineering Corp. (CESEC), to the company. At the break of its monopoly in 2009, a two-part payment from CESEC for a total of US50 million was drafted to Tongasat through government. CESEC is the commercial arm of the PLA’s General Staff Department’s elusive Fourth Department. [Purported to engage in cyber-espionage, electronic intelligence, and electronic countermeasures].
When Tongasat and CESEC entered into business, that means that Tongasat has entered the big leagues. Tongasat has become a serious global company.
Politicians claim the money from CESEC to Tongasat, conveyed through the Tongan government via a “economic and technical cooperation” regime, should’ve been kept by government as public monies. Lawsuits to that effect have been launched.
Maybe in the future, secretive Chinese government companies should just pay Tongan companies secretly, and not involve the Tongan government?
Learning and Succeeding
Politicians base their worldview on economics and state property using classical economics and political absolutism. Those theories were useful in the medieval times up to the 19th century. But in the globalised 21st century world, trade and investment principals and instruments have evolved and became intricate and complex.
Tonga’s political reform was only an in-house restructuring. Economic reform would link the politics in that system with the real global realities. If leaders are not careful, unnecessary reforms would allow foreign interests to undermine democratic interests of the common good and sovereignty.
Tonga’s political reform doesn’t mean that the REAL problems besieging the country have disappeared or changed. The real problems of geographic isolation, small geographic size, small population, and poor natural resources (comparatively), have never changed.
In fact, there is doubt that any political reform would change that reality.
With all these challenges, Tonga in the 21st century is forced to look abroad to make ends meet. Remittances is an example of that inevitable trend of looking abroad for business or jobs.
The only problem with remittance is it is taking from families’ incomes to subsidise their relatives’ consumption and social obligations at home.
The alternative is to have Tongan companies encouraged to do business abroad, not only in Tonga’s ‘Near Abroad’ in the Pacific, but also moving out into Asia and beyond. It will discipline them. It will then provide jobs for people at home, and abroad. That is a useful initiative for Parliament to take on, and easily succeed. The amount of energy that Tongan politics have wasted on internal, in-house opportunism is destructive. It is also corrupt.
Squabbling over the tiny economy’s market against foreign investors like the Chinese etc., and zapping emigrated families’ their vital earnings for obligation at home, is not inducive nor conducive to any growth. In fact, restructuring for any growth is limited because of limited resources and increasing presence of foreign companies.
Tongasat provides that critical blueprint and motivation. It shows it can be done. Tonga can be a global player. And by the compellence of Tonga’s geography and poor economic base and people’s aspirations for prosperity, it must be done!
That challenge might be too much for politicians. Especially if power struggles within political parties escalate closer to elections, and parties’ voter-bases are divided. With proper and honest vision, these divisions can be easily subsided, and the country set on the path of proper growth, in the hands of its own people.