A new air war in the Pacific: should Tonga be flying a Chinese plane?

If you’re a conscientious New Zealander planning a trip to Tonga you might visit safetravel.govt.nz. If you do, you’ll find this comment:

Tonga’s domestic airline fleet currently includes an MA-60 aircraft.  This aircraft has been involved in a significant number of accidents in the last few years.  The MA-60 is not certified to fly in New Zealand or other comparable jurisdictions…  Travellers utilising the MA-60 do so at their own risk.

New Zealand’s criticism and the media that has gone with it has hurt Tonga’s tourist industry and its domestic carrier Real Tonga. It sounds like the MA-60, a gift from China as part of an aid package, has now been grounded.

There’s nothing about this that isn’t highly relevant to my interests: Airliners, overseas aid, geopolitics, and China. It’s all I can do to avoid turning this post into an episodic saga.

The Xi’an MA-60 is a cheap and cheerful Chinese built turbo-prop. It was based on the An-140 a Ukrainian aircraft, but its been updated with Western engines and avionics. Orders for the MA-60 have come from within China’s orbit, or carriers generally inclined to buy regional aircraft at bargain basement prices. Think Laos, Zimbabwe, Indonesia and, now, Tonga.

The MA-60 is kinda funny looking, to be fair.
The MA-60 is kinda funny looking, to be fair.

New Zealand was not best pleased when the MA-60 arrived with a gift card saying “from China, with love”. China’s aid to Tonga began in 2006 when it offered super cheap finance to help Tonga clean up from a nasty spate of riots. Its been peddling influence ever since. Tongan bureaucrats get scholarships to learn mandarin and about governance Beijing style.

On top of concerns about China’s foray into the Pacific, the arrival of the MA-60 and the start up of Real Tonga spelt the end for an Air Chathams’ subsidiary that had been flying to Tonga’s outer Islands. Oh, and the MA-60 is possibly, you know, dangerous.

There’s been a string of MA-60 incidents, more than you might expect. But it’s not clear there’s anything wrong with the airplanes. Human error, and the shoddy airports and operators in the parts of the world where the MA-60 flies offer good explanations. The most damning evidence I can find about the aircraft itself is that its manufacturer is poor at after sales and maintenance support. One carrier had to cannibalise its third MA-60 to keep its first two flying.

What is certainly true, as the New Zealand government warning says, is that the MA-60’s safety hasn’t been certified by New Zealand Civil Aviation nor “comparable jurisdictions” which means the US and the EU. I’d argue that doesn’t necessarily make the aircraft unsafe. It’s just that the MA-60 isn’t flying in those “comparable jurisdictions” so there’s been no impetus for certification.

The thing that makes New Zealand’s ‘safety first’ argument for the warning hard to sustain is that there aren’t comparable warnings for other places where the MA-60 flies. You could maybe say Tongan domestic flights are likely to be frequented by New Zealanders. But surely a trip to Victoria Falls is on a lot of kiwis’ bucket lists, and an Air Zimbabwe MA-60 might just be taking them there. Or they might fly ZestAir, like we have, when searching out a Filipino beach.

It also interests me that the warning says travelers flying the MA-60 do so at their own risk, like that’s unusual. I would have thought that was essentially true of everyone who flies anywhere, ever. It is an interesting reminder, though, that government certification of aircraft is paternalist. Individuals are being stopped from making decisions about what planes they fly, for their own good.

New Zealand also pulled $5million in overseas development aid to Tonga when it accepted a Chinese plane. It wouldn’t support tourism development if it wasn’t satisfied with the safety of tourists. That’s fine on its face, but if your concern is China seeking to increase its influence in the region, surely turning overseas aid into a zero sum game is going to give the message ‘it’s us or them’.

A Radio New Zealand report says the MA-60 has now been grounded. Tourists to Tonga’s outer islands, the majority of whom have historically come from New Zealand, just weren’t flying it. Real Tonga has ordered two British Aerospace Jetstream 32’s that come with all the right certifications.

It seems New Zealand finally found a way to stick one to China in the Pacific. But if the grounding is winning the battle, the war is on-going. When she was Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told Congress the US was basically competing with China in the Pacific.

China is prepared to pay a lot to buy influence. You might quite reasonably say it should think twice about offering aid overseas when so much of its own population lives in poverty. You might similarly criticise China’s recent purchase of an aircraft carrier. But giving aid to small and vulnerable island states and having carrier groups so you can project your military power are the sorts of things that superpowers do. And that, it seems, is clearly China’s ambition. If you’re traveling to poor or forgotten parts of the world anytime soon, look forward to flying on MA-60s.

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