Samoa set to cancel $100m Chinese-funded port project

The woman expected to become Samoa’s next prime minister has pledged to cancel a $100m port development backed by China.

Fiame Naomi Mataafa said the plan was excessive for the country’s needs, and would increase its debts to China. She added that she hoped to maintain good relations with China, but that Samoa had more pressing needs than a wharf in Vaiusu Bay.

The project had been backed by long-time prime minister Sa’ilele Malielegaoi, who claimed that it would benefit local families.
But it divided opinion in the tiny country and became an issue in the elections in April in which the incumbent lost his majority in parliament.

The wharf would have been able to accommodate 12 vessels at once, raising fears among China watchers in the US and Australia that the port may have had a military significance.

The Chinese embassy in the Samoan capital of Apia rejected any suggestions of a military agenda, telling the Samoa Observer in February that the claims were "groundless". It said China was only carrying out a feasibility study at the request of the Samoan government.

"Samoa is a small country. Our seaports and our airports cater for our needs," Fiame told the Reuters news agency. "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."

According to Reuters, China is the single largest creditor in Samoa, a country of 200,000 people, accounting for about 40%, or around $160m, of its external debt.

The project was in the final stages of negotiation with China, with work set to begin when international borders reopen, according to a January report in the Samoa Observer, citing Tuilaepa.

Fiame’s government could be formed later this week, although legal challenges may cause delays.

China has announced a number of significant projects in the Pacific area in recent months.

In March, China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation won a contract to build seven sports facilities in the Solomon Islands for the 2023 Pacific Games.

Earlier this month, it emerged that plans were afoot to rehabilitate an airstrip and bridge on the coral island of Kanton, which is part of the central Pacific archipelago of Kiribati (see further reading).

The Vaiusu port is close to the main Apia port on the island Matautu, which has recently been expanded with aid from Japan.

Image: Government buildings in the Samoan capital of Apia (CloudSurfer/CC BY-SA 3.0) 

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