In a significant development, Samoa’s new Prime Minister Fiame Naomi Mataafa said, she will not go ahead with a China-backed port project, indicating that she would only back investments which have clear benefits for her country.
She noted that Chinese interest in the Pacific had grown after Washington effectively “moved out” of the region.
“There seems to be a renewed interest in the Pacific, which may be a good thing, but not necessarily,” said Mataafa in an interview.
Samoa, an island nation of around 200,000, relies on subsistence farming, along with coconut product exports, foreign remittance, fish and tourism. It now finds itself caught in a geopolitical jostling with the United States and its allies jostling with an increasingly aggressive China over water that have largely been uncontested since World War Two.
Foreign investment in critical infrastructure projects, such as airstrips and ports are highly sensitive and China’s proposal to construct a wharf in Vaiusu Bay played a major role in the outcome of the island’s April elections.
While Samoa’s former leader, Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi, had promised to build the port with Chinese help for $100 million, after a similar project was deemed economically unviable by the Asian Development Bank, Mataafa had made it clear that she would scrap the project, calling it excessive for a small nation that is already heavily indebted to China.
This is not the first instance of China’s debt trap diplomacy. Beijing is the single largest creditor in Samoa and accounts for around 40%, equivalent to $160 million, of its external debt.
“We’ve indicated that would not be a priority for us at this time and that there would be other areas that we would be more interested in,” said Mataafa. “I’m pleased the outgoing government had not reached a level of agreement with China where that is set in place.”
In a statement on Friday, China’s Foreign Ministry said China had held preliminary discussions with Samoa on the feasibility of building the port at the request of the former government.
“China always adheres to the principle of mutual respect and consultation on an equal footing in conducting foreign cooperation. We will continue to strengthen friendly exchanges and mutually beneficial cooperation in various fields with the new Samoan government in accordance with the above principles to benefit the two countries and peoples.”
Responding to the Chinese statement, Mataafa said Beijing had been a long-term partner and her government would assess the relationship in the same way it evaluates all of its bilateral relations.
“I think as a new administration coming in we will do that for China and any other partner that we have,” said Mataafa. “China just takes the forefront because of the nature of the work that’s being funded. There’s a lot of infrastructure, mostly building infrastructure which other donors don’t do.”