WELLINGTON, June 17 (Reuters) – Pacific security issues can and should be dealt with by regional nations, Samoan Prime Minister Fiame Naomi Mata’afa said on Friday, while adding that China’s size made it an attractive economic partner.
China’s growing influence in the Pacific and the potential for militarisation in its small island nations has fanned concerns among neighbours Australia and New Zealand as well as their ally, the United States.
“Everyone’s interested in China – they’re a huge market, in purchasing power, and so forth,” Mata’afa told Reuters in an interview during an official visit to New Zealand.
China’s increasing regional influence was highlighted by its security pact with the Solomon Islands this year.
It has also recently been pushing for a regional co-operation deal with almost a dozen Pacific nations on policing, security and data communications.
Pacific leaders have yet to agree to the plan, although they discussed it with a top Chinese official last month. read more
“We need as a region to deal with the (security) issue in the broader context of what we already have in place,” Mata’afa said, citing earlier regional agreements.
Leaders gathering for a meeting of the Pacific Islands Forum in July will discuss if more needed to be done regarding security so that countries did not feel they needed to look for support outside the region, she added.
“I think it’s a fair question when the leaders come together to say to the Solomon Islands: ‘Were we not enough? (Were) the provisions already in place not sufficient?'” she said.
“It’s not just for the Solomons, because it may occur in other parts of the Pacific.”
The Forum groups 18 island nations across the Pacific’s three cultural and geographic groups of Micronesia, Melanesia and Polynesia, as well as Australia and New Zealand. Some have diplomatic ties to Taiwan while most recognise Beijing.
Mata’afa said even if China’s proposal had been a bilateral pact Samoa would have wanted to further consider the benefits it would bring the country and its partners.
Since her election last year, she added, her government had adopted a round table policy of outlined its priorities with donor countries to ensure greater transparency.
Australia and New Zealand have traditionally been the main security and aid partners for island states, providing development and disaster aid and military assistance as needed.
Mata’afa said she understood the region was increasingly contested but China has had a long presence as a diplomatic and economic partner, while adding, “What I don’t like is if there are elements of racism in the discourse.”
The region was no longer just part of the “Blue Pacific” narrative but combined in the much larger Indo-Pacific and needed a greater say, she said.
“Now America wants to essentially come back,” she said, referring to the United States’ renewed interest in the region after years when many felt neglected by the country.
“And that’s also, I think, heightened Australia and New Zealand’s role and function.”
For example, Mata’afa said, South Pacific countries had not been consulted on the creation of AUKUS, a security grouping announced last year that includes Australia, Britain and the United States, and she felt they should have been.
The July meeting of the Pacific Island Forum, to be attended in person by the leaders, would be key to projecting a unified voice on the global stage, especially after northern Pacific countries had threatened to leave the grouping, Mata’afa said.
Apart from the geopolitical concerns, the region faced bigger challenges, such as the recovery from COVID-19 and broader health issues, and climate change, she added.
Besides rising seas and coastline erosion, there were more natural disasters, she said.
“Natural disasters have become quite a significant factor in the development trajectory of the region. You go forward a few steps, you get hit by a cyclone and that’s reversed.”
Climate change has very real sovereignty implications as Pacific island nations face the reality of shrinking or disappearing.
“Our land masses are such that we don’t have the luxury of moving to a different part of the country,” she said.