WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — The United States is doubling down on its investment in the Pacific, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman said Tuesday as she concluded a five-nation visit to the region where China has been making inroads.
“The future will be written here in the Pacific,” Sherman said at an agreement-signing event in New Zealand’s capital, Wellington.
Critics have accused the U.S. of neglecting the region and allowing China’s influence to flourish.
The Solomon Islands in April signed a security pact with China in a move that has alarmed many in the Pacific who fear it could lead to a military buildup. The U.S. earlier this year announced plans to reopen an embassy in the Solomons, where on Sunday Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare skipped a service commemorating the Battle of Guadalcanal that Sherman she and other dignitaries attended.
Sherman said the U.S. has always been a Pacific nation. She said it has been a priority for President Joe Biden to rebuild alliances and relationships around the world, and officials were using “every vehicle possible” to collaborate with Pacific partners.
“And so we are doubling down on our investment here in the Pacific,” Sherman said. “Our relationships, our partnerships, regional organizations.”
Asked if she felt the U.S. or China was winning the battle for influence in the region, Sherman said she didn’t see it quite that way.
“It’s not so much a battle,” she said. “I think that countries try to have relations with every country they believe will help them move forward. And the United States does not ask any country to choose between us and China, or any other country and China.”
She said the U.S. wanted a level playing field and respect for the rules-based international order that was put in place after World War II, a system that had helped China rise and which ought to benefit all nations.
Sherman said she had discussed China among a number of topics in a meeting with New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.
Sherman signed agreements to collaborate more closely with New Zealand on space missions and emergency management. It was the final stop on a trip that had taken her to Samoa, Tonga, the Solomon Islands and Australia.
Sherman spoke more about the decision of the Solomons’ prime minister to stay away from Sunday’s Guadalcanal commemoration.
“I told him I was sorry for him because I thought he missed an opportunity to raise up that strong partnership and the fight for freedom that allowed the Solomon Islands to exist as it is today,” she said.