SYDNEY—The new prime minister of Samoa has confirmed she will cancel a China-backed port project. She hasn’t closed the door to China as she navigates a path for the Pacific nation as a regional competition between Beijing and Washington intensifies.
Fiame Naomi Mataafa indicated she would only approve investments that had clear benefits for her country as she expressed doubts about an upside for the Pacific being a pawn in a geopolitical tussle between the two superpowers.
Mataafa said China’s interest in the Pacific had grown as the United States 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,” Mataafa told The Epoch Times on July 28, days after her election confirmation that ended a months-long political crisis.
Samoa, an island nation of around 200,000, has found itself exposed to external geopolitical jostling as Washington and its allies respond to a more assertive Beijing in Pacific waters that have been largely uncontested since World War Two.
Any foreign involvement in critical infrastructure, such as ports and airstrips, is particularly sensitive, and China’s proposed construction of a wharf in Vaiusu Bay played a part in the April elections.
Samoa’s former leader, Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi, 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 told Reuters in May, after her election but before taking office, that she would scrap the project, calling it excessive for a small nation already heavily in debt to China.
China is the single largest creditor in Samoa, accounting for about 40 percent, or some $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,” Mataafa told Reuters on July 28.
“I’m pleased the outgoing government had not reached a level of agreement with China where that is set in place.”
China’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement on July 30 that China held preliminary discussions with Samoa on the feasibility of building the port at the request of the former government.
Mataafa said China 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,” she said.
“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.”
First Female Leader
Mataafa was confirmed as Samoa’s first female prime minister on July 23, ending a political impasse in place since the April 9 disputed election. Malielegaoi governed the Pacific island nation for 22 years, making him one of the world’s longest serving leaders.
Mataafa said her government would focus on the national budget, after the months-long deadlock, as the coronavirus pandemic had devastated important industries.
Her elevation to the country’s leadership was briefly frustrated by a law, ironically designed to ensure greater female representation in parliament, that led to attempts to add an additional member who was allied with her rival.
Mataafa said there were ongoing impediments to female participation in politics such as the practice in some villages of denying women the title of chief, called matai, which is a prerequisite for entering parliament.
“Fundamentally, our electoral system was premised on our traditional matai system,” she said. “A move away from that would be to seemingly say we want to discard the traditional. What might be better to do is … change peoples’ perceptions of tradition.”
By Jonathan Barrett