Samoa in Constitutional Crisis, Stirring Great Power Rivalry U.S. Urges All Parties to Respect Democratic Process

The Pacific island nation of Samoa is facing one of the most serious constitutional crises in years. How this crisis is resolved will have far-reaching geopolitical implications for the larger country.

The FAST party, led by opposition leader Fiame Naomi Mataafa, narrowly defeated the HRP party led by Prime Minister Tuilaepa, who has ruled Samoa for more than 20 years, in last month’s parliamentary elections.

In accordance with the constitution, Fiam went to Parliament on Monday (May 24, 2021) to be sworn in as the new prime minister, but she was locked out of the Parliament building and could not enter, so the oath of office of the new prime minister and new government ministers was completed under a tent in front of the building. Samoa’s justice minister said the swearing-in ceremony was not legal. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Tuilaepa says he is still the prime minister of Samoa and the government he leads is still in charge of the island nation.

In a statement Tuesday, New Zealand called on all parties in Samoa to uphold the rule of law and respect the democratic process, and offered to help Samoa deal with this current political turmoil, but did not indicate whether authorities in Wellington recognized the legality of Monday’s inauguration of the new prime minister.

State Department spokesman Price tweeted the same day that “the United States calls on Samoan leaders to respect the democratic process and adhere to the rule of law, and urges the Samoan people to deal peacefully with their differences.”

Fiam said last week that she would seek to maintain good relations with Beijing when she takes office, but would shelve a plan for China to invest $100 million in a port.

In a telephone interview with Reuters, Fiam said, “It’s hard to imagine that we need a port of the magnitude that the plan is to build when the government needs to focus on projects that are desperately needed. For our constituents, the level of debt that our government owes to the Chinese government is a pressing issue.”

Prime Minister Tuilaepa, for his part, said the proposed “Chinese-funded” port construction project would create much-needed jobs and boost trade and tourism.

China is Samoa’s largest debtor country. Samoa’s population is only 200,000. About 40 percent of the island nation’s foreign debt is owed to China, about $160 million.

China has accelerated its investments in the Pacific island nation in recent years and has successfully lured the region’s Solomon Islands and Kiribati to break diplomatic ties with Taiwan in favor of mainland China.

In addition to this political aim, observers say Beijing is seeking to build ports in the region that could later be used to berth large warships, directly threatening the security interests of the United States and its allies Australia and New Zealand.

Both the Biden administration and the former Trump administration have warned some poor countries to be cautious about accepting Chinese money or fall into China’s debt trap and even lose their sovereignty.

Beijing has rejected accusations that China is setting up debt traps there or building ports for future military use. Chinese Ambassador to Samoa Chao Xiaoliang published an article in a local newspaper in March this year, saying China’s aim in strengthening ties with Samoa is to boost the country’s economic growth for the benefit of all Samoans.