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Samoa is preparing to host the Chinese Vice Premier, Hu Chunhua, and a high-level delegation from China this weekend.
Chunhua – who is one of four Vice Premiers and is a high-ranking assistant to the Premier Li Keqiang – is coming to Samoa to attend the 3rd China-Pacific Island Countries Economic Development and Cooperation Forum from 20 - 21 October.
The Forum is held every four years and focuses on the Action Plan of economic development and cooperation, signed between China and eight Pacific Island countries in 2006.
The Lowy Institute’s Pacific Islands Programme Director, Jonathan Pryke, said China sending one of their “25 most powerful men” to Samoa is a “big deal.
“This sends a strong message to the region that China sees it as important, especially considering President Xi's trip to Papua New Guinea less than a year earlier,” he said.
Pryke suggested China is eager to cement its relationship with Samoa, and that sending Chunhua is possibly an attempt to make the forum more significant.
“It will be interesting to see what kind of Pacific leadership attends, considering how busy their international travel already is with bilateral, regional and multilateral commitments,” he said.
Information on the Forum itself have not been made public, Pryke said, and he would have liked to know more about what is on the agenda.
“I wish it had been more publicly advertised, I would have loved the opportunity to participate myself,” he said.
Pacific analyst Dr. Tess Newtown Cain suggested the Chinese government's push to work more with the Pacific Island Forum may mean Beijing wanting to work more with the region as a whole rather than bilaterally with individual states.
It may also indicate an interest on the part of the Chinese government to do more in the Pacific that involves working with groups of countries rather than only through bilateral relationships.
New to the Forum will be the Solomon Islands and Kiribati, who just last month switched their diplomatic allegiance from Taiwan to China in a move the Taiwanese President condemned.
President Tsai Ing-wen said her country’s contribution “could not be measured in dollars.
“Taiwan's attitude towards its diplomatic allies has been one of sincere friendship. We spare no effort and treat our allies with sincerity.
“However, in the face of China's interference and suppression, we will not stand to be threatened, nor will we be subjected to ceaseless demands,” Tsai said.
Samoa was included in the countries the Solomon Islands visited when deciding whether to change their alliances to China.
The Solomon Island’s Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, who was in China this week for his inaugural visit, has joined the Belt and Road Initiative, and signed four other memorandums of understanding with Beijing.
The countries also established a partnership between the Solomon Islands provinces, and Guandong Province which is where Chunhua was Party Secretary from 2012 until 2017.
Dr Anna Powles, senior lecturer at Massey University said Guandong province is considered to be the the “tip of the spear” of Pacific engagement, and is regarded as China’s most important regional offices.
She also said the number of business and commercial delegates on the Solomon Islands trip to China was suggestive of the tone of their agenda.
“The number of business and commercial delegates on the visit; many of whom are Chinese Solomon Islanders, tells us a great deal about the modalities of Chinese engagement in the Pacific.
In Samoa, Chunhua will be expected to solidify China’s economic diplomacy with the states that recognise it, Dr. Powles said.
“The Belt and Road Initiative, which is under some pressure on the home front, will certainly be the central vehicle for discussions.
“Samoa, as host, has an important role in ensuring that the values of Pacific regionalism are upheld and that economic development proposals discussed at the Economic Development and Cooperation Forum are aligned with the principles and priorities of the Blue Pacific,” she said.
Some countries will be watching the Forum carefully, the experts suggest.
Dr Powles said Australia, New Zealand and the United States have been invited to attend the conference, and will likely be dissecting how favourable its outcomes are for China.
“There will be considerable scrutiny about the outcomes of the conference, about the implications of China shaping development outcomes in the region in ways that may predominantly favour China, but partners also need to remember that Pacific states have agency in their foreign policies and China has offered opportunities, such as infrastructure, which until recently, partners have not,” she said.
“It's an affirmation that the West will have to remain vigilant,”Pryke concurred.
“They of course can't and shouldn’t try to stop China's engagement with the Pacific, but if China seeks to use any of its newfound influence to try and secure a military base or some other facility in the region I don’t think it would be in the Pacific's or in the West's interests.”
His comments come days after it was revealed a province in the Solomon Islands agreed to lease an island to a Chinese developer, Sam Group, in September.
Deputy opposition leader Peter Kenilorea Junior is concerned the island was chosen for its strategic location, but the Central Province premier said the agreement is not legally binding.
Dr Powles said any partnerships or agreements need to be scrutinised carefully in light of revelations about the Sam Grup and Central Province agreement, especially when it comes to lending.
“Domestically, China is under some pressure to demonstrate “bang for buck” for its lending and has sought to tighten up its lending practices,” she said.
“This will have an impact on what’s on offer but as we recently learnt in the case of the agreement between the China Sam Enterprise Group and Central Province, in the Solomon Islands, there needs to be careful scrutiny of such agreements and careful questions about who has oversight and authority on critical governance and investment issues.
While the western nations watch China’s engagement during the Forum, and more broadly in the region, Dr Newton Cain said the situation should not be portrayed as a 'battle' between development partners in the Pacific, as is often done.
“Pacific leaders have made it clear that they do not want their countries to be seen as pawns on a geo-strategic chessboard and neither do they consider their countries or the region as some sort of prize to be fought over,” she said.
“Leaders, including the Prime Minister of Samoa, have made frequent references to the fact that they want to be able to work with a range of partners to assist them in meeting development needs in their countries,” she said.
SOURCE: SAMOA OBSERVER/PACNEWS
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