Samoa signs China bilateral agreement during Pacific push by Beijing

Samoa signed a bilateral agreement with China on Saturday, promising “greater collaboration”, as Beijing’s foreign minister continues a tour of the Pacific that has sparked concern among western allies.

The deal’s details are unclear, and come midway through a Chinese delegation’s eight-nation trip – but an earlier leaked draft agreement sent to several Pacific countries outlined plans to expand security and economic engagement.

The mission has prompted western leaders to urge regional counterparts to spurn any Chinese attempt to extend its security reach across the region.

The Samoan government confirmed in a press release on Saturday that Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi and Samoan prime minister Fiame Naomi Mata’afa had met and discussed “climate change, the pandemic and peace and security”.

Local media were invited to witness the signing of a deal, but no questions were taken. Previously, journalists seeking to cover the Solomon Islands leg of Wang’s tour for international outlets said they were blocked from attending press events, while those journalists allowed access are extremely limited in their ability to ask questions.

The Samoan release said China would continue to provide infrastructural development support to various Samoan sectors and there would be a new framework for future projects “to be determined and mutually agreed”.

“Samoa and the People’s Republic of China will continue to pursue greater collaboration that will deliver on joint interests and commitments,” the release said.

The Chinese delegation has already visited the Solomon Islands and Kiribati this week.

On Friday, Wang met Kiribati’s president, Taneti Maamau, for discussions on fisheries, education and health, during the four-hour stop. Kiribati was focused on trade and tourism opportunities with China, and wasn’t keen on a security arrangement, according to a Kiribati official, who was not authorised to speak to media.

The official said a controversial plan to reopen a protected marine zone for fishing, and to upgrade an airstrip on Canton island, weren’t among agreements due to be signed.

China’s delegation arrived in Samoa on Friday night and is to depart for Fiji on Saturday afternoon, with other stops expected to be Tonga, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea and East Timor.

In a duel for influence, Australia’s new foreign minister, Penny Wong, was in Fiji on Friday, seeking to woo island states after Solomon Islands took Canberra by surprise last month by signing a wide-ranging security pact with China.

“We have expressed our concerns publicly about the security agreement,” Wong told reporters in the capital of Suva.

“As do other Pacific islands, we think there are consequences. We think that it’s important that the security of the region be determined by the region. And historically, that has been the case. And we think that is a good thing.”

At the first stop in Honiara on Thursday, Wang lashed out at “smears and attacks” against the security pact already signed with the Solomon Islands. The wide-ranging draft agreement and a five-year plan circulated to several pacific nations would give China a larger security footprint in a region seen as crucial to the interests of the United States and its allies.

In a stark letter to fellow Pacific leaders, Federated States of Micronesia president David Panuelo warned the agreement seems “attractive” at first glance but would allow China to “acquire access and control of our region”.

With Agence France-Presse and Reuters