U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and U.S. Ambassador to Australia Caroline Kennedy will travel to the Solomon Islands this week to commemorate the start of the U.S. battle there 80 years ago during World War II. The visit will highlight the current contest between the U.S. and China over which country has more influence in the Pacific Island region.
In April, China and the Solomon Islands signed a security agreement that allows Beijing to send armed police to the islands to protect Chinese investments. The agreement could lead to the establishment of a military base in the archipelago nation of 992 islands, a possibility that worries the U.S. and other allies in the region.
VOA's Mandarin Service spoke with some residents of Honiara, the capital, which is on the largest island, Guadalcanal. They welcome the visit and Washington's renewed attention on the island, they said, but they worry that the Solomon Islands could become caught between the two superpowers' competing interests.
Peter Kenilorea Jr., an opposition lawmaker who chairs the Solomon Islands Parliamentary Foreign Relations Committee, said Sherman and Kennedy's visit was important and reflected the positive relations between the two countries.
"But at the same time, I would like to highlight the importance of people-to-people relations between the U.S. and Solomon Islands, rather than playing this sort of cat-and-mouse game or catching up with that sort of thing," said Kenilorea, whose father, the late Sir Peter Kenilorea, was the first prime minister of the Solomon Islands.
Kenilorea said he hoped the U.S. would focus on the issues Solomon Islanders face and what they need, such as more scholarships for study in the U.S. and more jobs if U.S. companies, attracted by incentives, invest locally.
Switch in allegiances
In November, riots broke out in Honiara after Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare refused to meet with delegates from Malaita, the nation's most populous province, which had received aid from Taiwan and the U.S.
Sogavare had switched the nation's diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 2019, and resentment over that change fueled the riots along with long-simmering economic frustration and ethnic tensions that have erupted violently throughout the years since the Solomon Islands gained independence from Britain in 1978.
VOA Mandarin reached out to Sogavare's office for an interview but did not receive a response.
Ruth Liloqula, chief executive of Transparency Solomon Islands, a nongovernmental organization focused on promoting anti-corruption measures in the country, told VOA Mandarin that "there [are] no social security issues in the country. It's only in Honiara that every now and again it had this riot and looting and all of that. But this is because the prime minister refuses to meet with the people, to hear them out. So they took to the streets."
Liloqula, who also served as secretary to the Cabinet during Sogavare's previous term, said her country was caught in the competition between Beijing and Washington.
"The saddest thing about what's happening to us … is that the superpowers are competing," she said.
"Come up with a way of working together instead of competing. If it is helping us to grow and also helping our people to grow and our country to grow, [it] is the endgame," she said. "But if it is for their own gains and their own pride or their own geopolitics, it's not helping. It's like, you know, elephants fighting, then we are the grass that they're stepping on."
Malaita Youth Council President Phillip Subu told VOA Mandarin that young people engaged on social media were "worried about security, especially the establishment of a military base here. … They don't like any war and conflict."
"The most we want is peace, prosperity and development in our country," he said. "And that is what our leaders should push for, advocate for."
Daniel Suidani, premier of Malaita province, told VOA Mandarin that he was concerned about the security pact with China because he saw no external threat to the country.
"We have the Royal Solomon Islands Police force here," Suidani said, "and they have been trained by Australians. And the way they bring in this new idea of getting the Chinese security is concerning, especially for myself and our province, one of the most populated provinces in the Solomon Islands. So the way I look at it, this security pact is mainly her for the purpose of protecting the national government."
Subu said he thought the security pact between China and the Solomon Islands made people see China in a negative light, "especially with the military base. Like I said, people don't want war or conflict. We want peace, prosperity and development."
For its part, China has sought to downplay local and international concern about the security pact.
"The bilateral security framework agreement between China and the Solomon Islands is conducted in light of the request and need of the Solomon Islands and through consultations on an equal footing," Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said in early June. "Its purpose is to assist the Solomon Islands in maintaining social order."
The U.S. State Department said Sherman's trip would highlight the "enduring relationship" between the two countries. In a press release earlier this week announcing the visit, it added she would discuss with Solomon Islands officials a recent announcement to open a U.S. embassy in Honiara.
The United States has not had an embassy in the Solomon Islands since 1993.
Remembering Battle of Guadalcanal
During their visit, which will run from Saturday to Monday, Sherman and Kennedy will attend a memorial to mark the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Guadalcanal.
The battle, the first major campaign by the U.S. and Allied forces in the Pacific theater, began August 7, 1942. Fighting ended with the Japanese withdrawal in February 1943.
Sherman's father, a Marine, was injured during the battle. Kennedy's father, John F. Kennedy, served as captain of a Navy patrol boat and was wounded in the Solomon Islands. He later became the 35th president of the United States.
"Deputy Secretary Sherman will deliver remarks at a U.S.-organized ceremony on Skyline Ridge, the site of the U.S. Guadalcanal Memorial," the State Department said. "She will also deliver remarks at a Solomon Islands-hosted memorial at Bloody Ridge and attend additional memorial events organized by Solomon Islands and Japan."
Preparations for the ceremony at the World War II Guadalcanal American Memorial overlooking Honiara have been underway for several weeks.
Morgan Wairiu, chief of staff for Winrock International, an NGO that implements the U.S. Agency for International Development's scale sustainability project on the Solomon Islands, said that while the ceremonies and events are important to many on the islands, the nation needs to look to its future.
"So long as we decide, we as a country decide, on what we want to do and what we are able to do for ourselves, then others can come and help us in whatever way," he told VOA Mandarin.
"But we dictate to them. We say, 'This is what we want to do. If you are willing to help us, come on board, but you don't dictate things so that we can follow you.' They are only influencing us because of the lack of strong leadership. If you have a very strong leadership, [then] nobody dictates anything to you."