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By Lucy Craymer
WELLINGTON (Reuters) -U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman met with leaders in Samoa and Tonga on Friday, discussing climate change, ocean security and opportunities to work together as Washington seeks to re-engage with the region amid concerns about growing Chinese influence.
The senior U.S. diplomat's visit is part of a multi-leg trip to Pacific nations.
Sherman was in the region to listen and learn, she told a news conference, and her meeting with Samoan Prime Minister Fiame Naomi Mata'afa had been productive.
"Our two countries share a commitment to important democratic values, including respect for human rights, a commitment to protecting freedom of expression, and freedom of religion or belief and a strong belief in the importance of a free and open press," said Sherman. "I look forward to our continued friendship."
Several U.S. senior diplomats have visited the South Pacific this year as geostrategic competition in the region grows. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Samoa and Tonga in May, followed by Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong in early June.
Sherman confirmed Pacific leaders had been invited to visit President Joe Biden at the White House in September, although a date has not been confirmed.
Mata'afa expressed appreciation for the U.S. shift in its stance on climate change and its involvement in ocean governance. She said Samoa was excited to explore opportunities to work with the United States.
In Tonga, Sherman met with Prime Minister and Minister of Defense Siaosi Sovaleni, as well as Tonga's King Tupou VI, marking 50 years of bilateral relations and to discuss establishing a U.S. embassy.
They discussed expanding cooperation in public health, combating climate change and regional security issues, the U.S. state department said.
Sherman's Pacific tour is scheduled to include World War Two commemorations in the Solomon Islands and visits to both Australia and New Zealand.
(Reporting by Lucy Craymer and Kirsty Needham; Editing by Sam Holmes)