Building on the Past: China's Evolving Presence in Samoa

AuthorAshalyna Noa
PositionPhD Candidate, Macmillan Brown Centre for Pacific Studies, University of Canterbury
Over the past de cade, China has incr easingly attracted at tention from commen tators
for being an ‘emerg ing’ and contro versial part ner in the Pacif‌i c region challe nging the
status quo. Des pite this nar rative, Chin a has had deep-ro oted connectio ns throughout
many parts of the Pa cif‌ic, incl uding Samoa . roughout the la st century, a nu mber of
external law s and policies have played a pa rt in enabling the interact ions of the Chinese
in Samoa, cre ating the foundat ion for Chinese- Samoan relatio ns at a people-to-people
level. e f‌irs t wave of Chinese migrants se ttled in Samoa in the late 19t h century, with a
select few becoming established business entrepreneurs prior to the inf‌lux of indentured
labourers fro m China admin istered under Ge rman and New Zealan d control. Whi le
Chinese migra nts have conti nued to settle in S amoa, more rece ntly there has been a
notable increa se of Chinese inf‌luence in t he form of trade, investme nt and foreign aid.
Since becoming independent in 1962, and ocially forming diplomatic ties with
China in 1975 , Samoa has been able to asser t and navigate its own relation s with China
at a diplomatic l evel. Build ing on histori cal remnants , China’s growing inf‌l uence has
changed the geopolitical context in the region. China’s evolving inf‌luence since the late
1970s – and par ticularly over t he last few decades in the form of trade , investment and
foreign aid – has see n China becom e a signif‌icant pa rtner in the wi der Pacif‌ic regi on.
China has bec ome one of the top don ors in the Pacif‌ic r egion, with tra ditional par tners
urging cautio n to Pacif‌ic recipient s. is article explore s how China’s inf‌luence in Sa moa
has evolved ove r the last century t hrough migration , trade, investme nt and in its bilateral
I. Introduction
Exter nal powers have lon g had a hist ory of vy ing for inf‌luenc e in the Paci f‌ic
region, dr iven by their ec onomic, polit ical or str ategic in terests. H istoric ally t he
inf‌luence t hat these powers at tai ned at a global le vel had a ripple eect i n the
* Ashaly na Noa, Ph D Candida te, Macmi llan Br own Centre for P acif‌ic Stu dies, Unive rsity of
Can terb ury.
36 [Vol 27, 2020]
Pacif‌ic reg ion, seeing it t ransform f rom one of independent soc ieties involved i n
complex tradi ng networks to one of being cont ested, colonised a nd inf‌luenced in a
progressivel y globalised world. In t he current geopolitica l context, simil ar themes
continue to emer ge. Through r enewed interes ts of trad itional pa rtners a nd the
emergence of more contempor ary player s on the scene, the P acif‌ic has yet a gain
become a ‘contest ed space’ for partners hip. These histor ical and current i nf‌luences
– and the deci sion making of act ors involved – all play a p art in shapin g the ongoing
development of the Paci f‌ic and its peoples.
China cu rrently h as diplomat ic relations w ith ten Paci f‌ic countr ies and has
become one of the top donor s in the reg ion.1 Over the la st few decades, C hina ha s
drawn a lot of at tention from Wes tern comment ators and gover nments, of ten
regard ing Chi na as a ‘recent ’ or ‘emerging’ pl ayer in the reg ion. However, China’s
presence in the P acif‌ic is far more infu sed and, in some cases, goe s beyond that of
some of the more tra ditional donors th at we see in the region tod ay.
Using Samo a as a case st udy in the Pac if‌ic, thi s article e xplores how Chi na’s
presence has evolve d throug h migrat ion, trade a nd investment , and diplomat ic
relations. B y 1975, when Sa moa beca me one of the f‌irst Pa cif‌ic nation s to form
diplomatic rel ations with Chin a, Samoa already h ad a century of interac tions with
the Chine se insti gated by the i nf‌luence of imp erial powers s uch as Germa ny, the
United K ingdom and lat er New Zeala nd. These evolv ing inter actions bec ame a
foundation for bui lding the str ong diplomatic relat ionship that we see bet ween both
cou ntr ies t oday.
Far from bei ng the land locked people the y are ofte n
portrayed a s in hist ory, the Chi nese have been sk illed an d
adventurou s boatmen since t he dawn of thei r civil ization.
Even before we can sp eak of “Chi na” or the “Chi nese”,
Neolithic p eople from the ma inla nd of Asia were a ncestors
of the diverse pe oples of Ocean ia, who conquere d both the
Indian O cean and the Paci f‌ic in the f‌irst mi llennium BC. 2
1 At the time of w riting th is article, ei ght Pacif‌ic count ries had diploma tic relations wi th China:
Cook Isla nds, Federat ed States of M icronesia , Fiji, Niue, P apua New Gui nea, Sam oa, Tonga
and Vanuat u. In late 2019, a fur ther two countr ies – Kiribati a nd Solomon Islands – sw itched
alleg iance to recog nise Chi na rather tha n Taiwan.
2 Louise Le vathes When C hina Ruled th e Seas: e Treasure Fl eet of the Dragon  rone, 1405–33
(Simon and Sc huster, New York, 1994) a t 22.

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