US diplomat says Solomon Islands leader ‘missed an important opportunity’

The US Under Secretary of State said the Prime Minister of the Solomon Islands “missed an important opportunity” by not attending a memorial service to mark the anniversary of a key World War II battle.

Wendy Sherman was speaking as the South Pacific island nation feared forging closer ties with China.

Ms Sherman and US Ambassador to Australia Caroline Kennedy were among dignitaries who attended a dawn service near the capital Honiara on Sunday to commemorate the Battle of Guadalcanal.

Caroline Kennedy Caroline Kennedy (Niall Carson/PA)

Mrs. Sherman’s father, Marine Mal Sherman, and Mrs. Kennedy’s father, the late President John F Kennedy, nearly died fighting in the Solomons.

Kennedy was the commander of a patrol torpedo boat that was rammed and sunk by a Japanese destroyer, and Sherman was wounded during the Guadalcanal campaign, which was the Japanese army’s first defeat of the war.

Local media reported that Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, who signed a security pact with China this year, appeared to have snubbed the ceremony, a claim denied by his office.

Ms Sherman declined to say whether she considered the Prime Minister’s absence a snub, but said he ‘should answer to his own citizens as to why he made the choice he did’, in an apparent reference to the upcoming elections.

“I said directly to the Prime Minister that I was so sorry that his schedule obviously didn’t allow him to come because he missed an important opportunity,” she told the Australian Broadcasting Corp.

“It was a place where international leaders came together to say that working with the Solomons, at the time of the Second World War, was decisive in winning, in securing freedom and democracy. And so I really felt sorry for the prime minister because I think he missed an important opportunity,” she added.

Solomon Islands StabbingThe dawn service at Bloody Ridge (Master Chris Weissenborn/NZDF/AP)

Mr Sogavare denied a snub, telling the Solomons Star News in a statement that the government was well represented at all events for three days marking the anniversary at ministerial level.

The statement said newspaper claims of a snub were misleading and lacked understanding of the protocols applied at such events.

The pact with China has raised fears of establishing a Chinese naval base within 1,200 miles of Australia’s northeast coast.

A Chinese military presence in the Solomons would place it not only on the doorstep of Australia and New Zealand, but also close to Guam, a US territory that hosts major military bases.

The Solomons and China denied that their pact would lead to a Chinese military stand in the South Pacific.

Ms Sherman said Mr Sogavare had repeated the assurance during his recent visit that there would be no Chinese base.

Manasseh SogavareManasseh Sogavare (Rick Rycroft/AP)

“It’s a situation where we’re all going to be watching very carefully to see what’s going on here. It’s pretty critical,” she said.

China’s growing influence in the Pacific led the United States to pledge to reopen an embassy in Honiara which it closed in 1993. Washington also pledged to open embassies in Tonga and Kiribati, a Micronesian state that, like the Solomons, recently switched allegiance from Taiwan to Beijing.

The Solomons ceremony which Ms Sherman and Ms Kennedy attended was briefly interrupted when an assailant armed with a pair of scissors attacked a Japanese sailor.

Radio New Zealand reported that the victim was part of a Japanese Navy media crew and was stabbed in the neck, sustaining minor injuries.

The report quotes doctors saying the sailor needed stitches but was fine. Bloody Ridge community leader Wesley Ramo said the suspect was from a nearby community and was under the influence and mentally unstable.

The suspect reportedly tackled the sailor to the ground before locals and US military personnel intervened and detained him. The police then took him away and the ceremony resumed after a short break.

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