Samoan Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sa’ilele Malielegaoi has brushed off concerns about Chinese aid following a meeting with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, saying grants and loans from the Asian superpower are “all out in the open”.
Ardern, who is in Apia for the first leg of a Pacific mission, also announced NZ$9.5 million of funding to assist Samoa with its recovery from Tropical Cyclone Gita and support local businesses.
Ardern met the long-serving Samoan leader to talk about the major issues facing his country.
Speaking to media afterwards, Tuilaepa said there was a particular focus on the challenge of climate change and its impact on the Pacific, including adaptation and mitigation measures.
“This being the greatest challenge facing the world, how to save the planet.”
Ardern said the Government had decided to provide $3m in additional support for post-Gita recovery work, saying New Zealand needed to support Samoa and other countries as they dealt with the effects of climate change.
“We know we need to do our part but collectively I think we have a role to play in advocating on behalf of the Pacific together in an international forum as well.”
She also announced the Government would provide $6.5m to help young people and women in Samoa set up small businesses within the tourism sector and other industries.
“Given that this region, half of the population could be defined as young people, I think we both collectively are looking to what we can do to support our young people into employment opportunities.”
Samoa is among the Pacific countries to have benefited from aid or concessional loans from China, which have helped to build the country’s airport and court buildings.
Asked about Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters’ remarks that some Pacific leaders were taking risks by reaching for easy money, Tuilaepa said his country had been clear about its support from China for years.
"[China] have earmarked for the next five years US$2 billlion for grants to Pacific Islands and $2 billion for soft loans. It's all transparent, it's all out in the open, and you were all there to listen to these disclosures from China...
“We are only interested in what was promised to us, and we are following up in connection with our own development.”
Work visas were also on the agenda, with Tuilaepa praising the RSE scheme that brings seasonal workers to New Zealand from the Pacific.
“New Zealand has shown that flexibility by expanding the scheme to include construction works which benefited our tradespeople, not just Samoa, especially in relation to the recovery work in Christchurch.”
He said he and Ardern had discussed ideas on how to develop a separate quota scheme for Samoan workers which had been undersubscribed.
“What was agreed upon made sense with our people that come to New Zealand, and they should have jobs already earmarked for them, but when they do arrive and there are no jobs they become dependent on Samoans in New Zealand and it became a burden for them, so it makes sense that before you come over you should have a job lined up.”
Samoa had asked New Zealand to consider allowing RSE workers “who are quite productive and reported upon to be excellent contributors to the New Zealand economy” into the quota scheme.
Ardern said she was keen to support Samoan workers, but also wanted to ensure New Zealand did not drain talent from the country.
“Both of us agree that there are these competing interests of, yes the value of remittances and, yes, the value of having that skills exchange, but also ensuring there is the retention and return of skills back to Samoa.”
The New Zealand leader was full of praise for Samoa, saying it was important for her to visit the country early in her term.
“New Zealand is a second home for many, and that is a relationship that is very unique.”
However, she shied away from the opportunity to declare Samoa the most beautiful country in the Pacific – perhaps mindful of her remaining stops, and her father Ross’s posting as Niue High Commissioner.
“I have to tell you that I have been here obviously twice before now for holidays, so obviously I think it’s a wonderful destination. But you will probably know I have somewhat of a torn alliance as well because I’ve been called a daughter of Niue," Ardern said.
“Please don’t take that personally – and anyway you can be the daughter of many places.”