US draws on WWII to help boost future in Pacific islands
Caroline Kennedy, the U.S. ambassador to Australia, and Wendy Sherman, the U.S. deputy secretary of state, stood together at dawn Sunday on the island of Guadalcanal to honor the 80th anniversary of the World War II battle there that nearly led to the death of their fathers and that redefined America’s role across Asia.
Then and now, there was violence, great-power competition and jittery concern about the future. Their visit occurred as China’s military was expected to wrap up drills around Taiwan simulating an invasion. And in their remarks at events with officials from Japan, Australia, New Zealand and Solomon Islands, both officials emphasized that the region — and the world — finds itself at another crossroads.
Kennedy, surrounded by local well-wishers, promised to “honor those who came before us and to work and do our best to leave a legacy for those who follow.”
Sherman was more pointed.
“It is up to us to decide if we want to continue having societies where people are free to speak their minds,” she told a group gathered on a leafy ridge above Solomon Islands’ capital, Honiara. “If we want to have governments that are transparent and accountable to their people. If we want an international system that is fair and orderly, where everyone plays by the same rules and where disputes are solved peacefully.”
In many ways, the Guadalcanal visit was the bookend to a tense few weeks that started with trips to Asia by Secretary of State Antony Blinken and the speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, whose brief time in
Taiwan set off China’s military exercises.
Across the region, history, diplomacy and a crisis intertwined.
As Hal Brands, a global affairs professor at Johns Hopkins University, recently wrote, the early years of the Cold War were also defined by “diplomatic collisions and war scares,” when Russia and the United States jockeyed for position in a still-unsettled world order.
Today’s superpowers are different, and the contested locations are, too, with new proving grounds like Ukraine and Taiwan.
But some spots on the map, including the Pacific islands, seem destined for repeat roles.
China has been working across the region to secure influence, resources and possibly military bases in what security analysts describe as an effort to disrupt the Australian and U.S. presence in the island chains that played a pivotal role in World War II.
In Solomon Islands, one of the poorest of the Pacific island nations, the government has been especially accommodating.
In 2019, Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare cut diplomatic ties with Taiwan, the self-governing island that China sees as a renegade province.
A few months ago, he signed a security agreement with Beijing that could allow China’s navy to use some of the same islands where around 7,000 Americans died in World War II.
Sogavare, who met privately with U.S. officials and did not attend Sunday’s ceremonies, has insisted no Chinese base is on the way.
Nonetheless, the United States announced this year that it would reopen an embassy in Honiara, while adding embassies in Kiribati and Tonga — two other Pacific nations with a large Chinese presence.
And along with a formal diplomatic push, which Australia has also intensified, have come frequent reminders of U.S. ties reaching to the 1940s.
Kennedy, daughter of John F. Kennedy, and Sherman, whose father, Mal Sherman, was a Marine, recently discussed their connection to the Solomons and the war.
“We reflected on how she wouldn’t be here, I wouldn’t be here, if our fathers hadn’t been rescued,” Sherman said before the trip.
In a video that featured images of Americans fighting, Kennedy visiting a World War II memorial in Australia and Sherman touching her father’s uniform, they promised that the United States would “recommit to working with our allies and partners.”
In their speeches and free moments, they spoke of family anecdotes and shared experiences — selfless, victory, freedom, personal risk, united were the words often repeated.
With Sherman calling China’s response to Pelosi’s trip “irresponsible” during a news conference, it was a visit meant to resonate for months.
“It’s part of the American comeback strategy,” said Clive Moore, an emeritus professor of history at the University of Queensland whose research has focused on Solomon Islands.