How tiny Pacific nations are standing up to China

New DelhiEdited By: Gravitas deskUpdated: May 21, 2021, 12:02 PM IST

File image: Chinese President Xi Jinping Photograph:(Reuters)

Story highlights

The underdogs are willing to fight. All they need is some good crowd support

Underdogs sometimes beat overwhelming odds to challenge the bigger power. For them, spirit matters more than strength. A similar scene is unfolding in Indo-Pacific.

Indo-Pacific is home to dozens of small islands. They don't have standing armies or state-of-the-art weapons. But what they lack in strength, they make up for in spirit.

One such island is Samoa. The 2,800 sq km island is home to 200,000 people. It's a small self-sufficient country. But its location has attracted big powers including China. It wants to convert these islands into its outposts.

Step one in this direction was chequebook diplomacy.

China is Samoa's single largest creditor. It accounts for 40 per cent of their debt. That's 160 million dollars.

Step two, was building strategic assets.

For this, China courted Samoa's long-serving Prime Minister Tuilaepa Malielegaoi. This is a man who once said that Pacific countries only had themselves to blame for China's debt traps. So he was more than happy to welcome the Chinese.

Under his leadership, Beijing bagged a 100 million dollar port project in Samoa. China was all set to conduct a feasibility study for the port.

But that's when the pandemic struck. So China had to wait for the borders to reopen.

Karma or coincidence, but China's own Wuhan virus tripped them up in Samoa. The port project was never popular to begin with. And with Samoa's economy taking a beating last year, public opinion shifted.

This shift was clearly seen in the parliamentary elections in April. The pro-China prime minister was ousted. He has been replaced by opposition leader Fiame Naomi Mata'afa. She is expected to take charge on Friday. 

Samoa's new leader is a fighter. She is the first woman to hold the office. She comes from Samoan political royalty. Her father was the country's first prime minister. And she will need all this pedigree for the path she is on.

Because Fiame Mataafa has decided to take on the Chinese. She has promised to cancel the new port project.

"Samoa is a small country. Our seaports and our airports cater for our needs. 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," she said in a recent interview.

Samoa's new prime minister has seen through China's designs.

Beijing is an expert at convincing countries to build things they don't actually need. Sea ports, air ports, roads, trading terminals.

Most of these are just debt instruments. Once the payments are due China will swoop in to take ownership. To avoid this, Samoa is looking to diversify its relationship. The new prime minister is promising to build better relations with the United States to counterbalance China.

Samoa is not alone in standing up to Beijing. Last month, it was Palau, another tiny Pacific island. Their president says he doesn't even answer phone calls from Beijing.

More countries need to take this stand. But they are scared of a reprisal from China. This is where the democratic alliance comes in.

Pacific islands drifted closer to China because they had no option. To counter this influence, the likes of US, India and Australia must do what China is doing but without the debt trap.

The underdogs are willing to fight. All they need is some good crowd support.