Samoan Prime Minister Fiame Naomi Mata’afa has suggested it was unreasonable for China to expect a Pacific trade and security deal to be rushed through this week, as she warmly welcomed the new Australian government’s climate policy.
Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs Penny Wong (黃英賢) announced during a joint press conference in Samoa yesterday that Canberra would provide it with a new Guardian-class patrol vessel to replace the one that was grounded last year.
Wong’s second visit to the region since being sworn in last week signals the intensifying competition with China for influence, although the former climate minister has emphasized she wants to listen to and respect Pacific priorities.
Fiame played down the bilateral cooperation agreements her country signed when Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs Wang Yi (王毅) visited the country.
Fiame said the signing ceremony was for bilateral programs and projects, most of which “had started a number of years ago, and it was a formalizing process.”
“It just seemed a bit abnormal because the minister of foreign affairs was here and there was this particular proposal from the Chinese, that they were seeking regional agreement on,” Fiame told reporters yesterday.
“Our position was that you cannot have regional agreement when the region hasn’t met to discuss it, and to be called in to have that discussion and to have an expectation that there would be a comprehensive decision or outcome was something that we could not agree to,” she said.
In a setback for China, Pacific countries declined to sign up to a sweeping regional economic and security deal proposed by Beijing, after a crucial meeting of Pacific foreign ministers and their Chinese counterpart on Monday. Ten Pacific countries were to be part of the deal.
Samoa’s position was that regionwide agreements must first be taken to the Pacific Islands Forum.
Fiame said she believed Pacific countries had concluded that “we need to meet as a region to consider any proposal that is put to us by our development partners that requires a regional agreement.”
Wong, who joined Fiame for a media conference after talks in Apia, praised Samoa’s leader for her “very wise intervention” on the issue.
“Your prime minister has shown a lot of leadership and wisdom, not only now, but I think in many of her statements about the importance of robust regional architecture, respectful regional processes to deal with some of the external circumstances we all find ourselves in,” she said.
Wong said Australia believed regional security was “an issue for the Pacific family.”
While each nation is sovereign, it is important to have “collective consideration” of decisions that could “ultimately have the potential to affect the nature of the security arrangements of the region,” she said.
China’s proposed deal, which was leaked last week, covered everything from a free-trade area with the region to providing humanitarian and COVID-19 relief.
It also laid out China’s vision for a much closer relationship with the Pacific, especially on security matters, with China proposing to be involved in training police, cybersecurity, sensitive marine mapping and gaining greater access to natural resources.
After consideration of the deal was deferred on Monday, China released a “position paper on mutual respect and common development with Pacific island countries.”
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