China signs deal with Samoa as Aussies push Pacific plan

Beijing and Canberra engage in rival campaigns to woo island nations in region

SYDNEY/APIA • China's Foreign Minister signed a deal with Samoa yesterday to strengthen diplomatic relations, while Australia's new leader said he had a "comprehensive plan" for the Pacific, as Beijing and Canberra continued rival campaigns to woo the region.

China is building on a security pact it recently signed with the Solomon Islands, which has alarmed the United States and its allies such as Australia as they fear a stepped-up military presence by Beijing.

Australia's new centre-left government has made the Pacific Islands an early diplomatic priority. Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, sworn in last Monday, said yesterday that his Labor government's plan includes a defence training school, support for maritime security, a boost in aid and re-engaging the region on climate change.

"We will be proactive in the region, we want to engage," he told reporters.

China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi, on a tour of the Pacific seeking a 10-nation deal on security and trade, finished a visit to Samoa, where he met Prime Minister Fiame Naomi Mataafa and signed documents including an "economic and technical cooperation agreement", Samoa said in a statement.

"Samoa and the People's Republic of China will continue to pursue greater collaboration that will deliver on joint interests and commitments," it said.

The deal contained an agreement to help build a police fingerprinting lab in addition to an already announced police academy in Samoa, which follows earlier commitments of "capacity building" for law enforcement in the Solomon Islands.

Samoa 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".

The Chinese delegation visited the Solomon Islands and Kiribati earlier last week.

Meanwhile, Fiji's Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama said yesterday that he had a "wonderful meeting" with Australia's new Foreign Minister Penny Wong, who had visited days after taking office to show the new government's attention to the Pacific Islands.

"Fiji is not anyone's backyard - we are a part of a Pacific family," Mr Bainimarama wrote on Twitter, posting a picture of himself and Ms Wong shaking hands.

Mr Bainimarama appeared to be taking a veiled swipe at Mr Scott Morrison, the conservative prime minister ousted in the May 21 election, who once referred to the Pacific as Australia's "backyard".

Climate change, which Pacific island nations consider an existential threat, had been a key issue in the Australian election.

"Our greatest concern isn't geopolitics - it's climate change," Mr Bainimarama wrote. "In that spirit, I had a wonderful meeting with Foreign Minister @SenatorWong to strengthen our Vuvale Partnership with Australia", he said, using the Fijian word for "friendship".

Ms Wong has said that Canberra will be a partner that does not come with strings attached, while Mr Wang expressed hope that Beijing's ties with the Solomon Islands could be a regional model.

Ms Wong, on her visit to Fiji, warned that there were regional consequences to a security pact between the Solomon Islands and China, after the Chinese minister said interference in the deal would fail.

Mr Wang was headed to Fiji, where he is expected to push for the regional deal in a meeting he is to host tomorrow.

At the first stop in Honiara last Thursday, Mr Wang lashed out at "smears and attacks" against the security pact already signed with the Solomon Islands.

While the draft agreement and a five-year plan circulated to several Pacific nations, both obtained by AFP, would give China a larger security footprint, the region is 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 that the agreement seems "attractive" at first glance but would allow China to "acquire access and control of our region".

REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 29, 2022, with the headline China signs deal with Samoa as Aussies push Pacific plan. Subscribe