Flanked by senior diplomats in Beijing, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi addressed leaders from Pacific Island nations last October.
The president of Kiribati, prime ministers of Fiji, Tonga and Niue, and the foreign ministers of Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, Federated States of Micronesia and Solomon Islands appeared in windows on a screen, their video summit meant to herald a new promise in China’s relations with their region.
But one leader stood Beijing up at what was the first-ever China-Pacific Island Countries Foreign Ministers’ Meeting.
Samoan Prime Minister Fiame Naomi Mata’afa, who is also the country’s foreign minister, skipped the summit and sent a junior representative. The joint statement the participants issued at the end of the meet left Samoa, a country of about 200,000 people located 2,600 miles (4184 kilometres) southwest of Hawaii, out altogether.
The previously unreported snub was the latest evidence of tensions creeping into China’s ties with the sparsely populated Pacific Island nations, some of which are trying to reset economic relations with Beijing.
Since coming to power last July, Mata’afa — Samoa’s first female prime minister — has delivered on her party’s promise to halt a Chinese-backed port project, calling its $100m price tag excessive for a country with a gross domestic product of just $800m. Her predecessor, Tuila’epa Sa’ilele Malielegaoi, had signed the deal for the port.
Nearly 2,000 miles (3219 kilometres) west, the Solomon Islands were rocked by violence in late November amid lingering divisions over the country’s decision in 2019 to switch diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China, which considers the self-ruled island its territory. Chinese-owned businesses in the capital Honiara were targeted by protestors from Malaita, the country’s most populous island, which had opposed the switch from Taipei to Beijing.
At the heart of the protests were perceptions that the national government was trying to topple the regional administration, said Peter Kenilorea Jr, an opposition member of parliament in the Solomon Islands.
“Across the Pacific Islands, I now have friends asking me why the Solomon Islands moved to China from Taiwan,” Kenilorea Jr, also a former United Nations diplomat, told Al Jazeera. “They’ve had their own experiences with Beijing.”
Apart from Palau, Nauru, Marshall Islands and Tuvalu — all of which recognise Taiwan — the Pacific island nations have diplomatic ties with Beijing. Since 2009, China has been the region’s second-largest lender behind the Asian Development Bank, loaning $1.34bn to the Pacific Islands.
It owns a majority stake in multiple mining projects scattered across the islands. And for the past eight years, it has been a top trading partner for the region, neck-and-neck with Australia.
The pushback in Samoa and the unrest in the Solomon Islands reflect a broad rethink in the region over how countries should deal with Beijing, according to some analysts.
“There are certainly growing concerns in the Pacific about the nature of China’s engagement and the manner in which China pursues its interests in the region,” Anna Powles, a senior lecturer at the Centre for Defence and Security Studies at New Zealand’s Massey University, told Al Jazeera. “This was reflected at the recent foreign ministers meeting.”
To be sure, the region’s countries still want to do business with China, said Jonathan Pryke, director of the Sydney-based Lowy Institute’s Pacific Islands Program. But there’s mounting recognition there is often a wide gap between the grand commitments Beijing makes and what its actions in the region actually amount to, he said.
“The reality of what China delivers, and the costs, have made countries reassess that relationship,” Pryke told Al Jazeera. “The Pacific has wisened up to China. They’re treating China like they would treat other partners, pushing back when needed.”
No country captures that shift more clearly than Samoa. Back in 1976, the country was among the first in its region to establish diplomatic ties with communist China at a time most Pacific nations recognised Taiwan.
Today, Samoa is so economically dependent on China that it owes 40 percent of its external debt — about $160m — just to Beijing, said Powles. The port project would have added to that debt.
It helps the region’s decision-making that Australia is stepping up to offer an alternative to Chinese investments. In late October, Canberra bankrolled the bulk of a $1.6bn deal for Telstra Corp to buy Digicel Pacific, the largest telecommunications provider in Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, Samoa, Tonga and Nauru.
“It’s a strategically vital company, and the idea is to block China from buying it,” said Pryke. In December, Australia, the United States and Japan announced they would jointly fund an undersea cable bringing fast internet to Nauru, Kiribati and the Federated States of Micronesia.
‘Great power rivalry’
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Australia had been a leading aid provider to the Pacific islands, from personal protective equipment and tests early in the crisis, to a $450m commitment to provide vaccines across the region starting March last year. New Zealand has also supplied vaccine doses to its smaller neighbours.
“Australia and New Zealand kept us afloat during the pandemic,” Robert Bohn Sikol, a former parliamentarian in Vanuatu, told Al Jazeera.
In contrast, recent research by the Lowy Institute, a Sydney-based think tank, shows that China’s aid to the Pacific island states has declined since 2018, even though the pandemic gave donor nations a perfect platform to shower smaller countries with cash.
Meanwhile, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken visited Fiji in February — the first trip by the top US diplomat in 37 years — and, among other things, announced that the US would set up an embassy in the Solomon Islands even as the country recovers from the recent violence.
“The case of the Solomon Islands is a case of great power rivalry,” Michael Kabuni, a political scientist from Papua New Guinea, told Al Jazeera.
The Pacific island nations have “mixed views” about the increased rivalry between the West and China over their region, said Sandra Tarte, an associate professor in international relations at the University of the South Pacific in Suva, Fiji.
On the one hand, it gives the countries a bigger set of potential economic partners to choose from, and more negotiating strength.
Richard Clark, press secretary for President David Panuelo of the Federated States of Micronesia, told Al Jazeera that the country “welcomes increased attention” from the US and China.
But Clark also said the country would prefer the two powers work together for the region, especially on issues like climate change.
“The United States cannot solve climate change by itself, and China cannot solve climate change by itself,” he said.
Indeed, Tarte said there are concerns across the region that the rivalry could bring “unwanted tensions and risks of military buildup”. Those worries have taken a very real form with last year’s signing of the AUKUS pact for the US and the UK to supply nuclear-powered submarines to Australia.
The deal triggered criticism from regional leaders like Kiribati President Taneti Maamau, who recalled controversial nuclear tests conducted in the region by the US and the UK before the Pacific islands gained independence.
Even as their concerns about China rise, the region’s countries don’t want to get dragged into a geopolitical tussle between Washington and Beijing, said Kenilorea Jr, the Solomon Islander member of parliament.
“You’ve got to remember — when two elephants fight, it is the grass that gets trampled,” he said.