DEPUTY SECRETARY SHERMAN: Thank you all for being here. Good afternoon. And thank you for waiting. I really appreciate it. Schedules often get tighter than one imagines.
Earlier today, I had the profound honor of participating in the ceremonies to commemorate the 80th Anniversary of the Battle of Guadalcanal. It was a solemn morning of remembrance for those who fought and died to build a free, open, secure, prosperous, and above all peaceful Indo-Pacific.
The United States and Pacific Island nations, including Solomon Islands, share profound ties with each other. Those ties are shaped not only by our shared experiences in the Second World War, but by our geography, our ongoing economic relationship, and above all our shared culture, values, and commitment to addressing the challenges we face in partnership and friendship.
This afternoon, I had the pleasure of meeting with Prime Minister Sogavare. As you can see, I had a wonderful visit. I thanked him for Solomon Islands’ hospitality in welcoming all the visiting delegations to Honiara in honor of this important anniversary. Occasions like these are enormous undertakings, and we appreciate the partnership and leadership of Solomon Islands in planning these events.
My meeting with the Prime Minister, however, was focused on the future and on the important bilateral partnership between the United States and Solomon Islands.
As you know, earlier this year Secretary Blinken announced the United States intends to reestablish a U.S. Embassy in Honiara. I was pleased to be able to tell the Prime Minister that Russ Comeau, who is right there, who has been serving as our Director for Solomon Islands, has officially been named Charge d’Affaires for Solomon Islands by the U.S. Department of State — an important step in the process toward an embassy.
However, we are not waiting for our embassy to open to continue deepening our cooperation with Solomon Islands. I told the Prime Minister, and I am pleased to tell you all now, that President Biden will be inviting the leaders of the Pacific Island nations to a meeting and a dinner at the White House in September, around the time of the UN General Assembly. This White House meeting between the President and the Pacific Islands will be an historic opportunity to discuss our shared challenges, exchange ideas and perspectives, and achieve deeper understanding at the leader level, the Pacific way.
We have been strong partners with Solomon Islands in combating the COVID-19 pandemic. This week, we delivered an additional more than 35,000 Pfizer vaccine doses to Solomon Islands in partnership with COVAX. This delivery brings our total donations of safe and effective vaccine doses to Solomon Islands to more than 188,000 so far. We stand ready to provide additional doses, including pediatric doses, as needed in partnership with COVAX.
I am pleased, as well, to be able to announce that as part of Pacific Partnership 2022 — the largest annual humanitarian and disaster relief preparedness mission in the Indo-Pacific — USNS Mercy, the world’s largest floating hospital, will be docking in Honiara in the coming weeks at the invitation of the Solomon Islands government. Mercy’s crew will work with our Solomon Islands partners on a range of activities including medical exchanges, engineering projects, and community outreach. Mercy’s visit to Solomon Islands underscores our strong commitment to working with the government and the people of Solomon Islands to improve public health and health care access during the pandemic and beyond.
We are continuing our cooperation on other important issues as well. Unexploded ordnance and the legacies of the war continue to pose a threat to the safety of Solomon Islanders. Over more than a decade, the United States has provided more than $6.8 million to survey and clear unexploded ordnance as well as to provide training for the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force. We look forward to building on that work and continuing to support the clearance of unexploded ordnance.
We are expanding our work together on the security challenges of the present as well. Maritime security is a major priority for both the United States and Solomon Islands. That is why we have provided $500,000 in Foreign Military Financing to Solomon Islands to support training with the U.S. Coast Guard.
We are working to help Solomon Islands improve volcano monitoring, strengthen disaster preparedness, and build climate resilience through our USAID programs. At the invitation of the Prime Minister, and working with Solomon Islands partners, USAID developed and launched the SCALE Project to advance sustainable forestry management. The first SCALE grants will be awarded later this year.
We are engaged as well in discussions with the government of Solomon Islands about returning the Peace Corps and its volunteers for the first time since 2000. And the Millennium Challenge Corporation recently signed a Threshold Program Agreement with the government of Solomon Islands to implement a four-year, $20 million effort to reduce poverty and improve natural resource management.
We are partnering with Solomon Islands on these and other priorities, not only because it is in the United States’ interest to do so, but because the government and people of Solomon Islands have told us that these are their priorities. These are your priorities. In Solomon Islands and throughout the Pacific Islands, the United States is committed to following what is sometimes called, as I mentioned, the Pacific Way — listening to our partners to really understand their concerns and interests, and finding a path forward together.
I want to once again give my thanks to the Solomon Islanders for your hospitality and very warm welcome. It is truly and an honor and a deeply personal one for me as well, to be here.
I look forward to taking your questions. Thank you.
REPORTER: Hi Madam. Good afternoon, and thank you for honoring us with your visit. It’s often said that a bad beginning makes a good ending. Would that be a fair assessment of your meeting with Prime Minister Sogavare this afternoon?
DEPUTY SECRETARY SHERMAN: I don’t know that I’d say it that way. The United States and President Biden, Vice President Harris, Secretary Blinken, have a real commitment to deepening and strengthening our relationships in the Pacific. And the whole reason for coming here is to understand and listen and make sure that what we’re offering meets the needs as Solomon Islanders see those needs.
I was in Samoa and Tonga before coming here. The Secretary of State has been to Fiji. Some of my other colleagues have been to some of the other islands. Vice President Harris spoke to the PIF. This is going to be a very deep relationship, and opening an embassy here is part of that.
I think that the conversation with the Prime Minister was wide-ranging, very bold, and we both reflected on the fact that 80 years ago we all fought together for freedom. Solomon Islanders not only provided coast watchers, but civilians here had to live in war and die as soldiers were trying to fight for the freedom of Solomon Islands. And that history is critical to today because these are still the things that every single day those of us who believe in democracy have to work for.
REPORTER: I guess for Solomon Islanders mainly UXO would be one area which are interested in. Do you have a clear pathway in our U.S. support to Solomon Islands? We’ve had $6.8 million. Many Solomon Islanders do not think that’s enough.
DEPUTY SECRETARY SHERMAN: I quite understand. If I lived here and I was worried every day that one of my kids might step on a landmine, I would want every single bit of unexploded ordnance to be gone. So I totally understand that.
We were just having a discussion with the general in the Marines who was in the meeting with the Prime Minister. We are very committed to not only continuing our work, and we are about to put out an implementing agreement, tenders for a million dollars in addition for unexploded ordnance. But we’re also going to be coordinating with Japan, with New Zealand, with Australia, so that we try to cover as much territory as possible and do it in a coordinated fashion.
So I totally understand the concern, and it is a deep commitment by the United States and all of our partners and allies to do so.
REPORTER: Hi, thank you for being here. In your earlier remarks you talked about reinvesting, recommitting to the relationship with Solomon Islands and the Pacific region. I wonder is it a way of recognizing that the United States has been neglecting this region and there is a perception that you always [inaudible] this region is because of China’s inroads here. I was wondering if you can talk about that.
Since you’re on the subject I will have to ask you another question about whether you have any comment to China’s reaction to the Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, whether you worry about any long-term damage to the U.S.-China relationship. Thank you.
DEPUTY SECRETARY SHERMAN: Thank you. So we are here because we are a Pacific nation. The United States is a Pacific nation. Those of us who live in Washington or the East Coast forget sometimes there’s California and Oregon and Washington on the West Coast that look to the Pacific, not to the Atlantic. Hawaii, which is one of our states, is in the Pacific literally. So these are ties that are very critical to us.
It is also in appreciation, as I said to students that I met with yesterday in Tonga, that the future of the world will be written in the Pacific. This is where the greatest economic growth is. This is where there’s great population growth. This is where here in the Pacific Islands the reality of climate change as an existential threat is very real to every single citizen who lives here.
So these are issues and concerns that are part of who we are as Americans.
Of course there’s a geostrategic element to everything, but the fundamentals here are about the fact that the future of the world will be written in the Pacific and in the Indo-Pacific. It’s why when Secretary Blinken visited Fiji he laid out our Indo-Pacific Strategy, because it’s quite critical to the future for all of us, wherever we live in the world.
Now in terms of the Peoples Republic of China’s reaction to Speaker Pelosi’s visit and the aggressive military exercises that China has undertaken, we condemn these actions. We anticipated China might take steps like this. We expect they will continue to react both in the coming days and over a longer time horizon.
Taiwan, the United States and the world as we saw in the G7 statement, in the trilateral statement of Japan, Australia, and the United States the other day… we do not want to see an escalation here. The Prime Minister and I talked today about how there is no conflict in the Pacific right now, and we all want to keep it that way. In fact, we don’t believe the status quo of the Taiwan Straits should change. It’s worked quite well for decades now.
So we are very concerned about the over-reaction, and I find it most extraordinary, particularly being here in this region, that the Chinese would suspend any discussions with the United States about climate. This isn’t just about something that’s in our interest or even in China’s interest. This is in the interest of the world. I find it disappointing and actually somewhat irresponsible to suspend discussions around climate. That is something that crosses borders, that is a critical issue for the people of China who face pollution and uncertainty about the climate as well.
So I hope that the PRC reconsiders some of its actions. No one has an interest in escalation. But the actions they’re taking are quite risky and quite out of scale with the fact that a member of Congress visited Taiwan. Many members of Congress have visited Taiwan.
REPORTER: Just as you mentioned, we have a new embassy with the onset of Charge d’Affaires. What do you hope to achieve by opening a U.S. presence in the Solomons?
DEPUTY SECRETARY SHERMAN: Embassies are a way to serve American citizens who are here for business, for tourism, for familial ties, friends, but it’s also to serve the people of Solomon Islands who may want to travel to the United States or students who may want to study or visit. It is about building cultural ties and human ties with each other. Understanding each other better. Seeing ways in which we can support each other. So there’s an awful lot of work that can go on.
But I want to on all of these, and I was in Tonga where we’re also going to have an embassy though we’re probably a little further along here… it takes time to set this up, to find the right place, the right time, and do all the things that are required for security, but we’ll get there. And meanwhile, we have had terrific representation here, even before our Charge d’Affaires, sitting in the back as our Consular Agent to help people out. And now we’ve got colleagues who are here on a more regular basis, and we will build it step by step, but we’ll get there. We’re very excited about it.
REPORTER: Did you raise at all with the Prime Minister the security pact that Solomon Islands has signed with China? What did you say to him? And if you didn’t raise it, why didn’t you?
And secondly, did you ask him why he didn’t attend the service this morning, and what did he respond?
DEPUTY SECRETARY SHERMAN: On the latter, I said to him that I was sorry he wasn’t able to attend. I presumed his schedule was such that he could not. But I was sorry for him because it was just extraordinary and terribly meaningful, so I think he missed out on an opportunity to feel what we all did, which is that we were in this all together. We were in this with the Solomon Islanders and that is what got us to freedom. So I regretted for him that he was not able to attend.
Of course I brought up the agreement and wanted to better understand what it was and what it wasn’t. And I suspect it will be an ongoing conversation.
REPORTER: Was there any response?
DEPUTY SECRETARY SHERMAN: Oh, sure. We had a good discussion. [Laughter].
REPORTER: Any talking points?
DEPUTY SECRETARY SHERMAN: I think I’ll leave it to the Prime Minister to speak for himself. Obviously we want to understand what this agreement is and isn’t. We’ve been very clear that we’d like to make sure that there’s transparency in everything that goes on. It’s something that’s a core value in our country and in democracies, and accountability. And that Solomon Islanders hold on to who they are and what they want and control of their own security.
REPORTER: Just a follow up to my initial question, and that is that my question initially was premised on two considerations. Number one, when we listen to you, Madam, to all the goodies that you’ve announced in terms of partnership with the Solomon Islands, it’s mind boggling that within just a few short months the U.S. has gone into a flurry of activities to try and — well, what has happened over the last 80 years? And why all of a sudden the U.S. is now pushing and all of that?
Number two question is in relation to the ceremony this morning at the U.S. Memorial. Do you feel that the government has sort of snubbed the United States by not attending in terms of the Prime Minister’s presence? The Governor General, according to this program? I just want to get your views on that.
DEPUTY SECRETARY SHERMAN: When President Biden became President of the United States, and he’s only been President for like a year and a half, he said that in foreign policy a critical priority for him was to reinvest in alliances and partnerships, and Solomon Islands is a partner. It is a democracy. The PIF is an important regional organization. And the President made a commitment and challenged all of us, directed all of us, to invest in those alliances, partnerships, regional organizations, and that’s what we’ve gone about doing.
So what you’re seeing is diplomats like me and my colleagues and people in the Department of Defense and USAID and every other agency and department is following the direction of our Commander in Chief, the President of the United States, and that’s what we’re doing. So it’s not about sudden. It’s about what President Biden instructed all of us to do.
There have been other times when we have been very invested in these alliances and partnerships, but that’s not been true of every American administration. And the 80th Anniversary today was recalling how important that partnership with Solomon Islands was 80 years ago.
So it’s not like it just happened today, but there have been times when other administrations have not put a priority on alliances, partnerships, and regional organizations. But this administration, a very high priority.
As to your second question, as I said, I told the Prime Minister that I was sorry his schedule did not permit him to come because I thought he missed out. And my guess is that the program was printed days or weeks ago as these things usually are. So you put the highest person down on the program and hope it will work out to their schedule. Sometimes it doesn’t. But the real thing here is that I think he missed an incredibly moving set of ceremonies that will continue on this evening at the Remembrance Service and tomorrow morning at Bloody Ridge.
REPORTER: So you were not disappointed by the absence?
DEPUTY SECRETARY SHERMAN: Of course I would have loved to have had the Prime Minister there. But the real sorrow here is that I think he missed a real opportunity to commemorate how strong these bonds were 80 years ago that allowed for freedom here in Solomon Islands.
REPORTER: About the commitment to Solomon Islands, what role, what kind of role do you expect Japan’s Self Defense Force?
DEPUTY SECRETARY SHERMAN: What role for?
REPORTER: Japan’s Self Defense Force.
DEPUTY SECRETARY SHERMAN: I’m not going to speak for Japan. You can probably answer that question better than I can. What I will say is that the United States and Japan work very closely together. Japan is the cornerstone of our alliance in Asia. And as I said earlier, for instance on unexploded ordnance, I expect that we will be coordinating with Japan, Australia, and New Zealand on that process. Japan is a very strong partner here in Solomon Islands, and I look forward to continuing to work together in every way we possibly can.