American Samoa's member of the US Congress has warned that the "inept policies and heavy-handed actions" of the New Zealand and Australian governments in the Pacific are putting American interests in the region at risk.

Eni Faleomavaega - who discussed Pacific issues with the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in April -- has called for the United States to step up its influence in region.

He has claimed that the USA has increasingly deferred to the governments of New Zealand and Australia on Pacific issues, and that the State Department has neglected Oceania.

Mr Faleomavaega is reported to have told Mrs Clinton that Australia and New Zealand are making "nasty accusations" against Fiji and "acting with a heavy hand" about a "situation that is more complex than it appears".

According to Mr Faleomavaega, who has set out his views in an opinion piece in the Sydney Morning Herald, Fiji and its one million people plays a vital part in trans-Pacific trade routes with vast marine and seabed minerals.

The US should play a more proactive and independent role, one offering the country a better chance of emerging from its current crisis, eliminating its "coup culture" once and for all and establishing a more stable government," he said.

"For too long, the US has deferred to Australia and New Zealand ... despite their obvious policy failures".

"Heavy-handed tactics and misguided sanctions" used by Wellington and Canberra politicians had hurt average Fijians far more than the coup government, he said.

Punishing average Fijians would never solve the country's problems, and by making life in Fiji increasingly difficult, "Canberra and Wellington may well be sowing the seeds of civil unrest and violence".

Mr Faleomavaega, who chairs the Congress subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific and the Global Environment, warned that China had stepped in to fill the vacuum, offering grants, concessionary loans and enhanced trade opportunities.

He noted that Australia and New Zealand's combined exports and imports to Pacific island nations were more than US$25 billion ($40.3 billion), and that Fiji alone counts for almost US$4 billion during the same period.

But the interests of Australia and New Zealand may diverge -- sometimes significantly -- from those of Washington, and their "foreign policy elites" wrongly viewed the region with a eurocentric mentality. Fiji's complex ethnic mix was not adequately appreciated in Canberra and Wellington.

"Fortunately, the Obama Administration is gaining a better understanding of ... how our friends in Canberra and Wellington have dropped the ball," he said.

The USA should offer the country the necessary resources to reform its electoral process, redraft its constitution and to hold successful elections.

Washington should also offer to help strengthen Fiji's economy -- and longterm stability -- through the promotion of bilateral trade and investment, particularly in tourism.

The congressman also wants the USA to hold a Pacific Islands "conference of leaders" in Washington so that President Barack Obama and senior officials can meet the region's leaders.

- NZPA