Samoa’s prime minister has raised concerns about China muscling its way into the Pacific but stressed relations with Beijing need to be seen in a more nuanced way.
Fiame Naomi Mata’afa is in Australia to meet Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, with the two signing a new co-operation agreement.
Mata’afa said Pacific nations needed to be the first point of call for security issues in the region, with problems arising when other nations send in security personnel under the guise of protecting their assets.
The Solomon Islands signed a security pact with Beijing after Chinese police personnel were sent to the Pacific nation when riots broke out to protect Chinese businesses and people.
Mata’afa said she is worried about the precedent it sets.
“It was presented that China was wanting to bring in security personnel in a sense to protect those assets, physical and human,” she said.
“It’s an issue that needs to be looked at because it could easily develop as a trend. It would not be a trend that I would encourage.”
Albanese also reaffirmed the need for a unified approach to issues such as security, with his Samoan counterpart saying any nation that wanted to engage regionally should go through the Pacific Islands Forum.
“The point Samoa continues to make is that for our partners if they want to continue to engage with us regionally, then they have to recognise the Forum as the unit they speak to,” Mata’afa said.
“And they have to go through the processes of the forum.”
The comments came after reports the Solomon Islands had chosen a Chinese company to upgrade the international port in the capital, Honiara.
The Samoan leader said the Solomons had the right to make sovereign decisions and the region would have to address any “dual use” of the port for military or naval assets when and if they arise.
Honiara and Beijing have denied there will be a Chinese military presence in the Solomons.
But Mata’afa said it was important not to pigeonhole the region’s interaction with China.
“Samoa was probably one of the first Pacific island countries to have relations with China, in the mid-’70s, which is around the same time Australia also made formal relationships with China,” she said.
“So everyone’s interested in China’s huge market. We all have bilateral relations with China.
“I don’t think anything is simple. I think it’s nuanced.”
Security, economic and infrastructure co-operation formed the staples of the new partnership arrangement, titled Ole fala folasia i lo ta va (the map that guides us).
Climate action and financing climate resilience projects were also on the agenda with the two leaders discussing the “urgent need to accelerate international action to address the existential threat of climate change”.
Albanese commended her leadership on climate action and ensuring the unity of the Pacific Islands Forum.
“I look forward to further enhancing the bilateral and regional cooperation,” he told parliament.