Samoa’s Prime Minister says a Federal Government frontbencher’s criticism of China’s aid program is “insulting” to Pacific Island leaders, and has the capacity to “destroy” Australia’s relationship with the region.
The comments come on the heels of a bubbling diplomatic row that has broken out between Australia and China regarding Pacific relations, with Beijing lodging a formal protest over International Development Minister Concetta Fierravanti-Wells’ attack on its Pacific aid programs.
Senator Fierravanti-Wells on Wednesday accused China of building “roads to nowhere” and “useless buildings” in the Pacific.
“The comments by the Development Minister have certainly surprised me, indeed, they are quite insulting to the leaders of Pacific Island neighbours,” Samoan Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele told the ABC.
“To me the comments seem to question the integrity, wisdom and intelligence of the leaders of the Pacific Islands.”
Tuilaepa said the comments undermined Australia’s diplomatic efforts in the region.
“These kinds of comments can destroy the excellent relationships existing between Australia and the Pacific Island neighbours, particularly Samoa,” he said.
The Samoan leader said he disagreed with Senator Fierravanti-Wells’ claim that Chinese money was being misspent, and said the money has proved crucial in his country’s efforts to deal with the impact of climate change.
He said China was better placed to provide this assistance to Samoa than Australia.
“I do not really know that Australia is able to finance the kind of assistance provided by China,” Tuilaepa said.
“The kind of assistance provided by China are those kinds which are not within the aid budgets of Australia.”
Tuilaepa denied there was a strategic element to China’s aid in the region, and said the country had not asked Samoa to give it access to ports or airports.
He said he would not speculate on how Samoa would respond if such requests were made.
Fiji’s military coups shifted aid balance
Fiji opposition leader and former prime minister Sitiveni Rabuka said while Senator Fieravanti-Wells’ assessment of Chinese aid was basically correct, it did not take into account why his country has looked to China for support.
Mr Rabuka — who led two coups in Fiji in 1987 — said China’s role in Fiji grew when Australia and other nations began withholding aid during periods of political instability.
“When Australia turned it’s back on Fiji when we had our coups of 1987, and then briefly in 2000 and then 2006, you opened the doors for non-traditional partners to come in,” he said.
“When our traditional aid donors shut the door on us, we had to survive.”
Australia and Fiji normalised relations in 2014, however, China is now the island nation’s largest aid donor.
However, Mr Rabuka said he thought reliance on Chinese loans would come at a high price for Fiji.
“I think we have overcommitted ourselves to Chinese aid. It will be very difficult for us to pay those loans,” he said.
China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has made representations to Australia’s Embassy in Beijing over Senator Fierravanti-Wells’ criticisms.
China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang yesterday defended China’s aid program, saying it had “significantly fuelled” development in Pacific nations and has been “warmly welcomed”.