China has signed as many as seven new agreements with Samoa ahead of a special summit on China-Pacific Islands economic cooperation in the Samoan capital Apia.
- Details are yet to fully emerge, but the agreements cover education and trade
- Samoa is hoping to boost its exports to $160 million per year
- The summit comes as China looks to increase its presence in the Pacific
Beijing was expected to use the China-Pacific Island Countries Economic Development and Cooperation Forum to spruik its trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative, a massive infrastructure-building project offering cheap loans to developing nations.
One of China’s most senior government officials, Vice-Premier Hu Chunhua, is leading the country’s delegation in Apia, and the meeting comes just one month after Solomon Islands and Kiribati formalised diplomatic relations with Beijing.
The new agreements between China and Samoa were signed after a bilateral meeting between Mr Hu and Samoan Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele on Saturday.
They cover a range of areas, including education, e-commerce, investment, infrastructure and agriculture.
One of the agreements covers the inspection, quarantine and sanitation requirements for wild-caught fish exports — an area of particular interest for Samoa.
At an export summit on Friday ahead of Mr Hu’s arrival, Mr Tuilaepa announced his Government’s plan to make Samoa a regional hub for fish and agricultural exports.
The Pacific Island nation is looking to increase the value of its exports to $160 million a year, and the Government says it is on track to export about $50 million worth of goods this year.
During his speech at the welcoming banquet on Sunday night, Mr Tuilaepa said the summit would pursue better trade cooperation between China and Pacific Island nations, including by bringing Chinese businesses to the region.
“It is an important space for China and the Pacific to promote opportunities that would strategically support the sustainable development and prosperity of our peoples and nations,” he said.
Representatives from about 200 companies are reported to be in Apia for the forum and related events, including heavy-hitters such as the Chinese online shopping giant Alibaba.
China’s growing influence in the spotlight
The summit comes as China seeks to grow its presence and influence in the region, which is viewed by many Pacific governments as a positive move, but has been a source of anxiety for the United States and Australia.
Mr Hu has brought a large delegation with him, including 31 senior officials, with seven vice-ministers and 12 directors-general among them.
Dame Meg Taylor, secretary-general of the Pacific Islands Forum, told the summit countries in the region were aware of the “intensifying geopolitical engagement” that was taking place, but the focus must be on delivering results.
She said climate change mitigation and adaptation were two core areas where China could boost its engagement with the Pacific.
“We must ensure that these partnerships effectively deliver for our people in a fair and efficient manner that is built on mutual trust and respect,” Dame Meg said.
“China, as the world’s second largest economy, can be an important ally for the Pacific region … by taking a lead in escalating its ambition level and its commitments under the Paris Agreement.”
Solomon Islands and Kiribati are expected to be represented at the summit, after they ditched their diplomatic ties with Taiwan to establish relations with Beijing — a move China hailed as a breakthrough.
Chinese state-owned tabloid The Global Times reported that Taiwan was “very nervous” ahead of the meeting, concerned that its four remaining Pacific allies would consider following suit.
The Samoan Government said representatives from eight other Pacific Island nations would be attending today’s forum, however the Pacific countries who recognised Taiwan would not be represented.
The summit itself was only due to run for two hours, with attendees expected to sign a “program of action” on economic and development cooperation at the end of proceedings.
Details of the contents of that program of action are yet to be released.
By Liam Fox and Michael Walsh