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Nitin Pai: The signal from Samoa

In 1892, a powerful American corporation convinced Samoa king of advantages of being on the same side of United States

Nitin Pai  |  New Delhi 

In 1892, a powerful American corporation convinced the king of Samoa of the advantages of being on the same side of the world map as the United States of America. Robert Louis Stevenson’s mother, then a resident of the tiny island state in the South Pacific wrote that “it was simpler and in every way more natural to follow the Australian calendar; but now that so many vessels come from San Francisco, the powers that be have decided to set this right” by switching time zones so that Samoa was just a couple of hours behind California. Given the economic boom in the Americas through the last two decades of the nineteenth century, it made economic sense for Samoa to share business days with the US.

Now, 119 years later, Samoa wants to advance the country’s clocks by an hour, effectively executing a westward jump across the International Date Line (IDL) and towards the dynamic Asia-Pacific economies. New Zealand and Australia are Samoa’s largest trade partners and host a large number of expatriate Samoans who remit money to their relatives back home. Imports from China have risen from nearly zero in 2001 to around 10 per cent of the total import basket today. A Japanese multinational automotive component maker is one of the country’s largest employers. Oil supplies arrive from Singapore.

Yet Samoa shares only four working days with its key economic partners, since it lies east of the IDL. As Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi, Samoa’s prime minister, says, “While it’s Friday here, it’s Saturday in New Zealand, and when we’re at church Sunday, they’re already conducting business in Sydney and Brisbane.” If he has his way, beginning next year, Samoa will be an hour ahead of New Zealand, not 23 behind. The tourism industry is complaining that it won’t be able to use its “last place on earth to watch the sunset” brochures anymore. However, Prime Minister Tuilaepa’s Tughlaqesque move – sometime back he enacted a law making drivers switch to the left side of the road instead of the right – might well unlock the economic potential of an additional 52 common working days every year.

It also brings Samoa into the Asia-Pacific region. In geopolitics, as in economics, it is important to pay attention to what happens at the margin. This small island state – with a population of 180,000 – is literally at the margin of the world map. Its decision to join the Asia-Pacific region leaving the Americas behind underlines the shift in global economic power from the East to the West.

For over three decades, the South Pacific has been a key theatre in the contest for diplomatic recognition between Taiwan and China. Both sides offered financial inducements to governments of tiny island states, each of which has its own flag and seat in the United Nations General Assembly. Not only has Beijing’s score improved in recent years, the diplomatic investment is likely to stand it in good stead in the emerging contest with the US.

If eastern (American) Samoa officially belongs to the US, western Samoa enjoys excellent relations with China. According to the US State Department, China has “provided substantial assistance to Samoa. Assistance from the PRC [the People’s Republic of China] has been especially focused on construction projects, including the main government building as well as performance venues for the South Pacific Games, which Samoa hosted in August-September 2007. The PRC-funded parliamentary offices opened in August 2008, and the Justice building opened in January 2010. The two countries also signed concessionary loans of $64 million in 2008 and $30.5 million in January 2010 for the construction of a multi-storey office and conference centre and a national hospital, respectively”.

Beijing’s rising influence has worried the US. According to a diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks, a former US ambassador complained that China scored more points in Samoa by building a “lavish but impractical” swimming complex compared to the US Peace Corps, which had been working there for 40 years. It has also worried New Zealand and Australia. Another cable shows New Zealand’s prime minister expressing concern over “unofficial” Chinese activity in the South Pacific and fearing that the ostensibly non-state actors involved might have links with elements of the Chinese government. Similar worries exist in the Australian strategic community.

India is part of the dynamic region that Samoa seeks to join, but the South Pacific is not really on New Delhi’s policy radar. There is little by way of direct economic and diplomatic engagement, apart from the popularity of Hindi films in countries such as Fiji and Samoa. Therefore, there is scope for New Delhi to cooperate with Canberra and Auckland. Even as India looks at recharging its relations with Australia and New Zealand, it is worthwhile to assess whether there is a convergence of interests with respect to the South Pacific.

The author is founder and fellow for geopolitics at the Takshashila Institution and editor of Pragati — The Indian National Interest Review

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First Published: Mon, May 16 2011. 00:15 IST