SYDNEY - Tonga should determine its future, not China or any other country, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman said during a multi-leg trip to Pacific nations amid growing geopolitical tension.
At a televised event with university students in the Tonga capital Nuku'alofa on Saturday, Sherman noted the countries had fought alongside each other since World War Two, some three decades before establishing formal relations.
She said while the countries shared values of religious freedom and concern for human rights, the U.S. also considered Tonga strategically important.
"Why did the Japanese attack here? Because you were a strategic island that was key to who would rule the Pacific Ocean, who would own this area," she said, invoking the Pacific battle during World War Two.
"It is strategic today as well because, as you know, the People's Republic of China wants to be here, they want to invest here," Sherman added.
"What they can't do ... is decide your future for you. We want to work with you, we want to partner with you, and we want to make sure you get to choose your own future and that neither we nor anybody else decides it for you."
Top U.S. officials have visited the South Pacific this year as geostrategic competition in the region heightens. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Samoa and Tonga in May, followed by Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong in early June.
A day earlier, Sherman met Tonga Prime Minister and Minister of Defense Siaosi Sovaleni, as well as King Tupou VI, marking 50 years of bilateral relations and to discuss establishing a U.S. embassy.
Sherman's tour is scheduled to include World War Two commemorations in the Solomon Islands and visits to both Australia and New Zealand.
(Reporting by Byron Kaye; Editing by Shri Navaratnam)