By Humeyra Pamuk and David Brunnstrom
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and U.S. Ambassador to Australia Caroline Kennedy plan next month to visit the Solomon Islands, where their fathers fought in World War Two and the United States is in a modern-day battle for influence with strategic rival China.
Sherman and her delegation will commemorate the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Guadalcanal during her Aug. 6-8 visit and meet with senior officials “to highlight the enduring relationship between the United States and Solomon Islands” and plans to open a U.S. embassy in the capital, Honiara, a senior State Department official told Reuters on Sunday.
Sherman will be just the latest senior U.S. official to visit the Pacific region as Washington steps up efforts to push back against Chinese diplomatic inroads.
As well as Kennedy – whose father, assassinated U.S. President John F. Kennedy, took part in the Solomon Islands campaign as a patrol boat captain in World War Two – Sherman’s delegation will include Marine Corps Lieutenant General Stephen Sklenka, deputy commander of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, and the Marine Corps commander for the Pacific, Lieutenant General Stephen Rudder.
The State Department official said the visit would also be of personal interest to Sherman, whose father, Mal Sherman, was a Marine wounded at the Battle of Guadalcanal, which began between U.S. and allied and Japanese forces in August 1942.
The six-month battle marked the start of U.S.-led offensive operations in the Pacific, showing the strategic importance of the Solomons that endures today.
In Honiara, Sherman will deliver remarks at a U.S.-organized ceremony on Skyline Ridge, site of the U.S. Guadalcanal Memorial, as well as at a Solomon Islands-hosted memorial at Bloody Ridge. She also will attend memorial events organized by the Solomon Islands and Japan, now a close U.S. ally.
“These events will recognize the service and sacrifice of those who fought in the Battle of Guadalcanal, including U.S. and Allied forces, the people of Solomon Islands, and the people of Japan,” the official said.
A State Department spokesperson said Washington was seeking to “significantly deepen” engagement with the Pacific islands “and embark on a new positive chapter … with increased American presence where we will commit to work with the Pacific Islands in the short- and long-term to address the most pressing issues that they face.
“The deputy secretary’s trip to the South Pacific reflects the deep United States’ investment in the region,” the spokesperson added.
China has been seeking to boost economic, military and police links with Pacific island nations hungry for foreign investment. Washington has stressed its historical ties to the Pacific, especially shared sacrifices during World War Two, and vowed to commit more resources.
Beijing’s growing influence was highlighted by its security pact with the Solomon Islands this year, a move that fanned concerns in Australia, New Zealand and the United States.
In February, Antony Blinken became the first U.S secretary of State to visit Fiji in 40 years. While there, he announced a plan to open an embassy in the Solomon Islands and called the Pacific “the region for the future.” Washington has yet to give a date for the opening of the embassy.
A senior-level U.S. delegation visited the Solomons in April and warned that Washington would have “significant concerns and respond accordingly” to any steps to establish a permanent Chinese military presence there.
At a four-day summit this month, Pacific island nations put the two superpowers courting them on notice, telling what are the world’s biggest carbon emitters to take more action on climate change, while pledging unity in the face of a growing geopolitical contest.
Leaders at the Fiji summit also bristled at a Chinese attempt to split some of the nations off into a trade and security agreement, while Washington pledged more financial and diplomatic engagement.
(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk and David Brunnstrom; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Leslie Adler)