Chinese Premier Li Keqiang (R) holds talks with Samoan Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi in Tianjin, north China, Sept. 19, 2018. (Xinhua/Pang Xinglei)

APIA, 21 OCTOBER 2019 (SAMOA OBSERVER) — China is ramping up its efforts to win over island nations in Australia’s traditional sphere of influence, signing seven new agreements with Samoa at the weekend ahead of a meeting with Pacific leaders to spruik new Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects.

China Vice-Premier Hu Chunhua is leading a 31-strong delegation to Samoa, including seven vice-ministers and 12 directors-general, in a visit that has Australian officials on edge.

Samoan and Chinese ministers signed seven MOUs in Apia on Saturday, pledging co-operation on issues ranging from infrastructure investment to e-commerce, production improvements, education and agriculture.

The Third China-Pacific Island Countries Economic Development and Co-operation Forum will bring together leaders of eight Pacific nations that recognize China, including Solomon Islands and Kiribati, which recently established diplomatic ties with Beijing after splitting from Taiwan.

The forum is expected to be attended by 400 officials and 200 business people on Monday, while the head of Australia’s Office of the Pacific, Ewen McDonald, has been invited as an observer. New BRI infrastructure pledges are widely expected at the forum, along with private-sector deals in agriculture, forestry, fishing, tourism and communications.

Hu, a senior Chinese Communist Party politburo member, will try to convince Pacific leaders of China’s commitment to “green” and “high-quality” development after widespread criticism of BRI projects in the West.

The meeting comes amid fears in Australia’s security establishment that China’s increasingly aggressive push to do deals in the region could eventually give Beijing access to territory it could use as a military base.

Australian officials were alarmed at a recent move by a Chinese company with close ties to the Chinese Communist Party to lease an entire Solomon Islands island. The China Sam Enterprise Group signed a “strategic co-operation agreement” with a Solomon Islands provincial government to lease Tulagi Island — which has a deep water port — for a special economic zone.

The Samoa Observer said Hu’s visit “speaks volumes about his country’s attitude towards the Pacific countries”. “Needless to say, China’s role in the development of the Pacific is critical,” the paper said.

“While its motives and the way they operate have raised many questions from other corners of the world, it’s undeniable that without China, Samoa and most Pacific countries would find the going a lot tougher.”

A Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) spokesman said Australia welcomed sustainable development and transparent investment in the region that did not impose heavy debt burdens.

“Australia’s focus, through our Pacific step-up and broader aid program, is to ensure Pacific countries have quality choices available to them to advance their development priorities, including in vital areas like infrastructure,” the spokesman said.

Australia is the largest bilateral donor to Samoa, and the largest bilateral donor in the Pacific region.

The forum comes as a new Lowy Institute report suggests Chinese BRI lending in the Pacific falls short of “debt-trap diplomacy”. But the scale of Chinese lending and its lack of mechanisms to ensure debt sustainability “poses clear risks”, the report said.

“If China wants to remain a major development financier in the Pacific without fulfilling the debt-trap accusations of its critics, it will need to substantially restructure its approach, including adopting formal lending rules similar to those of the multilateral development banks,” the institute said. One of the report’s authors, Jonathan Pryke, said the analysis showed most countries in the region were close to their debt limits and had “really wisened up” to loans from all development partners. (PACNEWS)