SYDNEY (Reuters) – A senior U.S. diplomat will travel to Samoa on Thursday on a multi-leg trip to Pacific Island countries intended to demonstrate re-engagement by the United States with a region in which China has been extending its influence.
Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman will travel to Samoa and then Tonga, where she will be the most senior U.S. official to visit, before attending World War Two commemorations in the Solomon Islands.
The United States is concerned about China’s ambitions to extend its military presence in the Pacific, after it struck a security pact with the Solomon Islands this year.
Tonga has external debt of $195 million or 35.9% of its gross domestic product, of which two-thirds is owed to China’s Export-Import Bank, its budget shows.
Sherman will discuss plans to open U.S. embassies in Tonga and the Solomon Islands and the return of the U.S. Peace Corps aid programme, the State Department said.
A high-level U.S. delegation to the Solomon Islands to commemorate a major World War Two battle between the United States and Japan will proceed, despite disruptions to tourists caused by the sudden cancellation of many commercial flights, officials said on Thursday.
The suspension of flights to Honiara by Fiji Airways for safety concerns will see dozens of U.S. tourists miss the commemoration on Saturday, a tourism official said. Fiji Airways is one of two airlines regularly servicing the Solomons.
Sherman and U.S. Ambassador to Australia Caroline Kennedy, whose fathers served in the Solomon Islands, will attend the U.S. government ceremony for the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Guadalcanal.
The anniversary was expected to bring a tourism boom to the Solomon Islands, which last month re-opened its borders after the COVID-19 pandemic. The loss of tourism income during border closures across the Pacific islands had a severe impact on the region’s fragile economies.
Fiji Airways said in a statement it had suspended its flights to the Solomon Islands because of worry about the condition of the runway.
Solomon Islands tourism officials said the suspension was “a blow”, and they were trying to re-route tourists booked to attend the World War Two events.
Tourism Solomons head of sales Fiona Teama said the events would go ahead, although the tour group travelling from the United States would miss the U.S. government’s commemoration on Saturday because they would not arrive in time.
U.S. and Australian government aircraft carrying officials would continue to land at Honiara’s Henderson Airport, she said.
Sherman will also visit Australia and New Zealand.
(Reporting by Kirsty Needham; Editing by Robert Birsel)