The tiny Pacific island of Samoa has been plunged into crisis after its new president, who has pledged to scrap a $100 million port deal with China, was locked out of parliament this week amid a bitter dispute over the election result.
Fiame Naomi Mata’afa, the opposition leader set to become Samoa’s first female prime minister after a knife-edge victory in April’s poll, could dent China’s growing influence in the strategic region, if allowed to take office.
But the future of her government hangs in the balance after she was forced to opt for a makeshift swearing-in ceremony in a tent after Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi, the incumbent prime minister, refuse to cede power.
Both leaders have accused each other of staging a bloodless coup, with Mr Tuilaepa, the world’s second longest serving prime minster, charging that his opponent is guilty of “treason” for going ahead with the ceremony.
On Thursday, Samoa’s attorney-general said she would try to have the ad hoc swearing in of Ms Fiame’s Faatuatua i le Atua Samoa ua Tasi (FAST) party declared “unconstitutional and unlawful” in a Supreme Court hearing.
The outcome of the dispute will be closely watched by Beijing and by Washington and its regional allies New Zealand and Australia.
Ms Fiame has said while she intends to maintain good relations with China, that she plans to shelve the controversial Beijing-backed Vaiusu port development that would plunge the country into further debt to the Chinese. The port project was a divisive issue during the election campaign.
“Samoa is a small country. Our seaports and our airports cater for our needs,” Fiame told Reuters by telephone from Samoa’s capital of Apia.
“It’s very difficult to imagine that we would need the scale that’s being proposed under this particular project when there are more pressing projects that the government needs to give priority to.”
James Fanell, a former director of intelligence of the US Pacific Fleet, told the Telegraph the proposed port was one of several regional projects that could be converted from commercial to military use, raising alarm bells about China’s strategic ambitions across the Pacific.
“Before the Chinese ever talked about the Belt and Road initiative, we were talking about China’s “string of pearls” strategy where they were making deals and inserting themselves into these small nations, getting them saddled with debt,” he said.
“From a security standpoint for Australia and New Zealand, are you really going to be happy to have three or four Chinese port facilities that Chinese navy ships can operate in and out of?”
Jose Sousa-Santos, Pacific Policy Fellow at Australia Pacific Security College, said China’s interest in the port was “strategic opportunism.”
“Maritime connectivity is vital in the Pacific and China has engaged in a form of whack-a-mole around the region but hasn’t been very successful so far. The Vaiusu port development had progressed further than others,” he said.
Samoa’s hesitancy over the port came amid “growing concern across the security sectors in the Pacific about Chinese economic and political influence,” he added.
But Dr Anna Powles, Senior Lecturer at the Centre for Defence and Security Studies at New Zealand’s Massey University, said while there may be greater scrutiny of Chinese loans under a Fiame administration, that the country’s ties to China would not fundamentally change.
“I am doubtful we will see a major shift as Samoa is heavily indebted to China, owing just under 20% of their GDP. The economic relationship is fairly embedded and we are unlikely to see any changes to the political relationship – Samoa has had closer bilateral ties with China than many Pacific countries,” she said.