China has plans for an old US WWII port in Asau, Samoa
Asau, SAMOA — Early in the morning, before sunrise, low tide on the Samoan island of Savai'i reveals the remnants of an old American airstrip, washed away by decades of erosion, cyclones and tsunamis.
The World War II site in Asau, which also hosts a 1960s-era concrete wharf in its well-protected natural harbor, is being considered for a new port to be developed by China, according to the Samoan government and the area's highest ranking chief, Masoe Serota Tufaga.
The proposed construction of a facility that could be turned into a military asset in hostile times has worried the United States and its regional allies, which have dominated international influence in the vast waters of the South Pacific since 1945.
Sitting at his coconut and cocoa plantation on the hills above the port site, Tufaga told Reuters he would abide by any government deal for a Chinese-developed port even though he was concerned about Beijing's growing influence.
"The government and China came here to look at it — they offered it," said 71-year-old Tufaga, who has the final say over land-use agreements affecting Asau.
"If China wants to operate this, it's too hard for us to say to the government, no, we can not allow China here. The people are looking for some jobs. That's right — it's money. It's money."
Tufaga said the area was in desperate need of jobs and the port required significant investment to clear coral choking the entrance.
"Who else will do it?" he said. "We are waiting for China to extend the harbor for the big ships to enter."
China is using "predatory economics" to destabilize the Indo-Pacific and the United States is working with its partners to address the region's pressing security needs, US Defence Secretary Mark Esper said in Sydney on Sunday.
China's foreign ministry did not immediately respond to questions. Previously, China has said its assistance was welcomed in the Pacific and Chinese President Xi Jinping told a regional forum last year Beijing's lending activities were not a "trap."
The potential Chinese development of Asau, or a Beijing-funded port at a second potential site called Vaiusu, threatens to spark a waterfront contest in the world's largest ocean.
While the United States and its allies have historically been the predominant power in the Pacific, China also has long-standing ties with many islands. Vanuatu and Samoa are two of seven island nations in the South Pacific that owe significant debt to China.
Samoa recognized China in 1976 and a strong history of migration means around one-sixth of the island nation's 200,000 residents are of mixed Samoan and Chinese descent, according to census data.
Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi has been a strong supporter of Beijing, last year saying Pacific states had themselves to blame for their debt problems and describing criticism of China's lending as patronizing.
He told Reuters he would not allow geopolitical fears to stifle development of much-needed infrastructure and said Samoa would "follow our own line of thought," not that of the United States and its allies.
"Their enemies are not our enemies," Malielegaoi told Reuters at his office in the Samoan capital, Apia.
"We have never spoken about any military thing; all we are interested in is our own wharf for ships that bring the goods in that we need and fishing vessels that might come in to take our fish overseas."