Samoa’s new leader scraps Belt and Road port deal

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Samoa’s new leader scraps Belt and Road port deal

By Jonathan Barrett

Sydney: The new Prime Minister of Samoa has confirmed she will cancel a China-backed port project, but hasn’t closed the door to China as she navigates a path for the Pacific nation against a backdrop of intensifying regional competition between Beijing and Washington.

Fiame Naomi Mataafa indicated she would only approve investments that had clear benefits for her country as she expressed doubts about being a pawn in a geopolitical tussle between the two superpowers.

Samoa’s Prime Minister-elect Fiame Naomi Mataafa.

Samoa’s Prime Minister-elect Fiame Naomi Mataafa.Credit:Samoa Observer/AP

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 said in an interview over Zoom on Wednesday, days after her election was confirmed, ending a months-long political crisis.

Samoa, an island nation of about 200,000 people reliant on subsistence farming, along with tourism, fish, coconut product exports and foreign remittance, 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.

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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 had 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 said in May, after her election but before taking office, that she would scrap the project, calling it excessive for a small nation already heavily indebted to China.

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China is the single largest creditor in Samoa, accounting for about 40 per cent, or some $200 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.

“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 did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said after Mataafa’s comments in May that the Samoan government had asked China to conduct a feasibility study for the port, and that any help would come “without any political strings”.

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.

China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian.

China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian. Credit:AP

“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.”

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 had 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.

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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 allied to her rival.

Mataafa said there were ongoing impediments to female participation in politics such as the practice by some villages to deny women chiefly titles, 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.”

Reuters

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