By Jonathan Barrett
(Reuters) - The battle fields of Guadalcanal, in the Solomon Islands, draw visitors from the United States and its war allies, as well as those from Japan, decades after the bloody campaign in the South Pacific ended.
But in recent weeks, some visitors say they have been prevented from accessing one of Guadalcanal's most significant World War Two sites, which includes a Japanese war monument, after a deal handed control of the land to a company controlled by a Chinese businessman.
Tour operators and the Japanese ambassador to the Solomons say it appears to be a case of a lack of understanding of the significance of the Alligator Creek site by the new owner.
The issue has stirred up debate in the Solomons concerning its new relationship with China, which was formalized in September following the Pacific island nation's decision to sever its diplomatic ties with Taiwan in favor of Beijing.
That decision has frustrated the now aligned United States and Japan, with U.S. officials expressing concern about China's "use of economic and military levers" to increase its influence in the South Pacific.
"I would like the problem settled in a peaceful way," Japan's ambassador to the Solomons, Shigeru Toyama, told Reuters by phone from the capital, Honiara.
Toyama said he hoped to meet with the new owners, JQY Ltd, in the coming days.
"I hope they will pay much attention to the monument and will reconcile how to preserve it," said Toyama.
The new owner has built a fence around part of the Alligator Creek site that takes in the Japanese monument, said tour operator Francis Deve, and access is dependent on whether security guards at the locked gate were present to take visitors in.
"There used to be local people sitting next to the site who put flowers around the monument; they were chased out and they put up a fence," Deve told Reuters on the phone from Guadalcanal.
A JQY representative in Honiara did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
The Ministry of Culture and Tourism was liaising with the owner to discuss potential heritage plans for the area around the monument, the Solomons government said in a statement.
BATTLE FOR HELL'S POINT
Tourism is an important income-earner for the Solomons, with most visitors drawn by the country's diving spots and war relics, which are generally accessible to the public, tour operators told Reuters. The archipelago is also heavily reliant on logging and fisheries.
JQY is registered to Chinese businessman Yang Jiangqing, who was part of a delegation that accompanied Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare to Beijing last month where the two countries signed several commercial agreements.
Yang did not respond to interview requests.
The bloody battles that occurred near Alligator Creek - sometimes referred to as the Battle of the Tenaru or Battle for Hell's Point - were part of a major American-led offensive in 1942 to take control of the island and its strategic airfield.
A counter-offensive proved disastrous for Japanese forces, and generations of relatives of the hundreds of fallen soldiers now regularly visit the battleground to pay their respects.
Solomons' acting Commissioner of Lands, Alan McNeil, said the department had consented to the transfer of the land to JQY in January from Levers Solomon, a local company historically involved in the timber industry.
"These land transfers are lawful and an everyday occurrence," McNeil said in a statement.
"Neither the national government nor the Guadalcanal provincial government sold this land – rather, it has been in private hands for many decades."
Levers did not respond to requests for comment.
The formal shift in alliances to China from Taiwan came during a period of heavy private investment in Solomons by Chinese companies.
The Solomons government has since said a deal signed by one of its provinces to lease the entire island of Tulagi to a Chinese company was unlawful and should be terminated.
Separately, details of a contract awarded to state-owned China State Railway Group to develop a gold project on Guadalcanal have not been released.
Deve, the Solomons tour operator, said negotiations with the new owners to freely access the site were advancing slowly.
"We must protect and preserve it," Deve told Reuters. "It should be a heritage site."
(GRAPHIC: Tug of war in the Pacific - https://graphics.reuters.com/PACIFIC-SAMOA-CHINA/0100B0D30T6/PACIFIC1.jpg)
(Reporting by Jonathan Barrett in Sydney; Editing by Lincoln Feast.)