A senior US diplomat was yesterday to travel to Samoa on a multi-leg trip to Pacific Island countries intended to demonstrate Washington’s re-engagement with a region in which China has been extending its influence, the US Department of State said.
US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman was to travel to Samoa and then Tonga, where she would become the most senior US official to visit, before attending World War II commemorations in the Solomon Islands.
The US is concerned about China’s ambitions to extend its military presence in the Pacific, after it earlier this year struck a security pact with the Solomon Islands.
Tonga has external debt of US$195 million, or 35.9 percent of GDP, of which two-thirds is owed to the Export–Import Bank of China, its budget showed.
Sherman is to discuss plans to open US embassies in Tonga and the Solomon Islands, as well as the return of the US Peace Corps aid program, the state department said.
A high-level US delegation to the Solomon Islands to commemorate a major World War II battle between the US and Japan would proceed despite disruptions to tourism caused by the sudden cancelation of many commercial flights, US officials said.
The suspension of flights to Honiara by Fiji Airways over safety concerns would cause dozens of US travelers to miss tomorrow’s commemoration, a tourism official said.
Fiji Airways is one of two airlines regularly servicing the Solomon Islands.
Sherman and US Ambassador to Australia Caroline Kennedy, whose fathers served in the Solomon Islands, would attend the US 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 reopened 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 that it had suspended its flights to the Solomon Islands because of concerns about the condition of the runway in Honiara.
Solomon Islands tourism officials said the suspension was “a blow,” adding that they were trying to reroute tourists booked to attend the World War II events.
Tourism Solomons sales head Fiona Teama said the events would go ahead, although a tour group traveling from the US would miss the commemoration because they would not arrive in time.
US and Australian government aircraft carrying officials would continue to land at Honiara’s airport, she said.
Sherman is also scheduled to visit Australia and New Zealand before returning to the US.
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