China is negotiating to fund the redevelopment of a coral-choked port in Samoa, in a move seen to have major economic and strategic implications for Australia and the US in the South Pacific.
Samoa’s Agriculture Minister confirmed that discussions were under way with China to bankroll the redevelopment and expansion of the Asau Port, which already boasts a concrete wharf and is sited next to an airstrip on Savai’i, the nation’s largest island.
A Chinese hydrographic surveyor was discreetly brought in earlier this year to map the port, which is unable to be used by large vessels because of coral and sediment choking the access channel, The Australian learned.
China’s involvement has raised red flags with military analysts, who warned that the port could lead to a land mass “right through the heart” of America’s defences in the South Pacific or threaten Australia’s east-coast trade routes to the US.
The port, originally developed for timber exports on the island in the 1960s, has been described as “well-protected from the east and south by the island itself and from the north and west by fringing coral reefs”, according to a New Zealand survey done last year.
But over the past few decades the entrance channel has become obstructed and it has never been subjected to planned dredging, which would have seen it cleared out to a depth of about 10m and width of about 68m, the survey said.
Due to the blockages and the shallow channel, the harbour is currently only used by recreational and charter fishing boats and for the occasional visit by the Australian-supplied Samoan patrol boat the Nafanua.
Samoan Prime Minister Tuilaepa Aiono Sailele Malielegaoi revealed the port’s redevelopment in April, saying “funding has been secured” to clear the channel, but he did not specify the source of the money.
But Agriculture and Fisheries Minister Lopaoo Natanielu Mua confirmed to The Australian that discussions were under way with the Chinese about funding the port. He declined to answer further questions about specifics.
“I think China is one of the donors that the government is talking to but nothing has been confirmed or finalised,’’ he said.
The funding of ports in developing nations has been controversial, with some nations such as Sri Lanka ending up handing over control of the installations to Chinese government interests after being unable to pay off development loans.
Concerns have also been raised by the International Monetary Fund about Samoa’s level of indebtedness to China.
Military experts expressed fears yesterday that a similar fate may await the Samoan port, which could see China gaining control of the harbour and a strategic foothold in the Pacific.
Australian Strategic Policy Institute analyst Malcolm Davis said yesterday that if the Chinese were able to access a Samoan port, then the risk would be that it could lead to a military base.
He said the other issue was that a base in the southwest Pacific would be well positioned to sit astride trade routes from the east coast of Australia to the US.
“They could potentially coerce Australia in that regard and project power to the north up to Micronesia, Guam and potentially Hawaii,’’ Dr Davis said.
Former US diplomat and retired marine colonel Grant Newsham, who is a senior research fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies, warned that the Chinese could use the same tactics by which they obtain a military base in Djibouti, on the Horn of Africa.
“It’s the Chinese modus operandi,’’ Colonel Newsham said. “You can see how it played out in Djibouti, where they got the government to toss out the Dubai ports company that controlled the port.”
Colonel Newsham said any sort of port type access for China could lead to a “salient right through the heart” of the US, Japanese and Australian defences. “It’s getting in behind the American, Japanese and Australian defence,’’ he said.
Foreign Minister Marise Payne did not comment on the revelations, but a spokesman for the Foreign Affairs Department said Australia wanted “to see infrastructure investment that is transparent, delivers long-term benefits and avoids unsustainable debt burdens”.
Efforts to contact Chinese officials in Samoa for comment were unsuccessful.
By RORY CALLINAN